Bernstein/Hussey friendship celebrated in Chichester Cathedral

Walter & Lenny '“ a one-man play devised and performed by Peter McEnery '“ enjoyed its premiere in Chichester's Minerva Theatre three years ago.

Saturday, 21st July 2018, 2:02 pm
Updated Saturday, 21st July 2018, 2:08 pm
Walter and Lenny
Walter and Lenny

Now it returns to Chichester as part of the Bernstein in Chichester festival, this time for a run of performances in Chichester Cathedral (Wednesday, September 5-Saturday, September 8) – the perfect venue given the story it tells.

In 1963, Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, wrote to Leonard Bernstein asking if he would compose a piece of choral music for the Southern Cathedrals Festival in 1965. Bernstein accepted. An extraordinary friendship arose from their correspondence, and in July 1965 Chichester Psalms received its (almost) world premiere in the Cathedral at which the composer was present.

Once again, Walter & Lenny will be directed by Peter’s wife Julia St John.

“We did it in 2015 for the 50th anniversary of the first performance of the Chichester Psalms,” Julia recalls. “Dean Walter Hussey had written to Bernstein. Berstein said yes. This was 1963 – and two years later, it was performed. Hussey had made a few suggestions to Bernstein, but he was probably not expecting it to be sung in Hebrew. That was probably the biggest curve ball that Bernstein threw him, but given the man Bernstein was, I am sure Hussey was open to the unexpected! The Hebrew was certainly trickier, but it was definitely surmountable. Hussey had already commissioned the Piper altar piece so he was certainly open to modernising.

“And when you first hear the piece it is certainly startlingly new. When you hear it for the first time, it is very loud and fast in places and then very lyrically beautiful with long, long notes. It is a wonderful piece.

“Peter had been lent a book of Bernstein’s letters and he was just intending to dip into them when he noticed a bunch of letters about Chichester in England. Peter thought ‘Why would Bernstein be writing about the cathedral city of Chichester?’ But the complete correspondence was recorded. There is something like 16 letters between them. Peter started reading them and was just captivated by them… these two very different people from such different worlds, this correspondence that starts off ‘Dear Dr Bernstein’ and ‘Dear Dr Hussey’ which flourished into this beautiful friendship which was ‘Dear Lenny’ and ‘Dear Walter.’ And of course, from this friendship flourished this beautiful piece of music. For Peter, it was clear to him immediately that it had the potential for a one-man show.”

As for the thought of directing her own husband, Julia says it is not tricky at all: “We just think the same way about it, but it is absolutely Peter’s conception. I don’t have to tell him things. When we first did it in the Minerva, my task was to find a way of dramatising the transition between the letters. Peter always knew that he wanted to use music. I had to find a way of physically seeing the two. That was my main work, but since then we have honed it. But really the way Peter saw the piece was very clear right from the word go. It was like the whole thing was born fully formed. I have directed him before in a short play. We actually met while we were working, both acting. But it is not a question of saying ‘That’s lovely, darling! Let’s have lunch!’ You have to put that relationship aside. We are working with other people on the production side, the guy that designs the video and sound, and we have also got a choreographer. It really isn’t just him and me!”

And it will be wonderful to perform the piece now in the cathedral: “The cathedral will be so wonderfully resonant.”