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Bernstein on Parade

September 23, 2008

On paper, last week's San Francisco Symphony program honoring Leonard Bernstein looked like a hopeless mishmash. But no, it turned out to be a triumphal success that had been brilliantly planned. Of course, that it was honoring "Bernstein I" and conducted by what amounts to "Bernstein II," Michael Tilson Thomas, didn't hurt. But who knew the man could sing and conduct at the same time?
Nine Bernstein excerpts made up the program, aided and abetted by as many outstanding soloists. The first half opened with the ubiquitous Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1961) and four sections from Bernstein's last opera, A Quiet Place (1983). Those included the orchestral Prologue to Act 1, with baritone Quinn Kelsey singing the angry aria "You're Late," soprano Dawn Upshaw doing the closing "Morning, Good Morning," and the orchestra playing Act 1's quiet Postlude.

Following intermission we heard a barrage of talent performing seven small excerpts from Bernstein's musicals. The chain opened with Stephanie Harwood singing "I Can Cook, Too" from On the Town (1944), cellist Peter Wyrick playing the Meditation No. 1 from Mass (1971), Upshaw singing "What a Movie" from Trouble in Tahiti (1951), plus baritone Kelsey and cellist Wyrick joining the orchestra for "To What You Said" from Songfest (1977), before the orchestral piece Danzón from the ballet Fancy Free (1944).

But hold on, five charismatic students from the American Conservatory Theater — Nick Gabriel, Phil Mills, Kyle Schaefer, Christopher Tocco, and Weston Wilson — sang and danced their way through "Gee, Office Krupke" from West Side Story, as choreographed by ACT's George Thompson. Finally, to round off, we had Upshaw, Kelsey, and Harwood plus the hoodlums from the Officer Krupke skit performing "Ya Got Me" from On the Town — with audience participation encouraged from the podium.

This big shebang was staged to honor Bernstein on what would have been his 90th birthday on the 25th of last month, as well as the 50th anniversary of his appointment as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. This week, the Symphony will give three performances of this same program in Carnegie Hall, opening a three-month celebration of Bernstein's life and work. That celebration then falls largely to the Philharmonic. I wonder how either of these organizations can top this year's festival when Bernstein's centennial rolls around.
Styled to Fit the Master
What made our subscription concerts so special was perfect style. Tender Bernstein was played and sung gently. Rowdy passages were done with full battle flags aflutter — devil take the hindmost. Then too, MTT knew Bernstein very well and is also to the manner born. In addition, he knows American audiences and our love of the occasionally naughty bits. That's why he invited the audience to join in clapping and to sing taglines during the concert's finale. He even turned around and sang one verse himself — and well, too. (But it was also obvious that he's not likely to be singing Tristan anytime soon.)

Those West Side Story samplings were as brassy and brash-sounding as they can be. That's just as they should sound. The Symphonic Dances were outstanding, while the large Officer Krupke excerpt surpassed the quality of the same scene in the film version of West Side Story. Those ACT guys were into it as I've never before seen. You'd think this was their hundredth performance

Some of this week's soloists are being replaced in the New York performances: Thomas Hampson succeeds Kelsey, and Yo-Yo Ma replaces Wyrick. I only hope the orchestra takes those ACT guys along, because they're so supertalented. A bravo, too, for choreographer Thompson, who did an excellent job in the confined stage space available in front of the orchestra. He earned his spurs as an American Ballet Theater dancer, and it shows.

Upshaw's musicianship and crystal clear voice were another major plus. Her aria from A Quiet Place, where a daughter mourns in the late mother's rundown garden, was heartbreaking. But she was equally convincing while camping up "What a Movie," as the same mother complaining of the cliche-filled film she'd just seen, called Trouble in Tahiti. (A Quiet Place is a tragic view of the same family Bernstein used for the comic Trouble in Tahiti, only many years later, after the mother has perished in a car accident.)

Which brings us to the big voice of baritone Kelsey, a native of Hawaii and a rising operatic star. His aria from A Quiet Place takes place at a funeral home as the father rants at his children, bemoaning all the troubles they caused him and his wife. And now they come late! "You shouldn't have come ..." he raves, and Kelsey sang it with an almost Wagnerian fury. Although Songfest is a heavily flawed work, Kelsey did what he could for that shallow aria.
Bawdy Belting
Harwood, an experienced New York cabaret and piano-bar vocalist, tore the audience to shreds with a hilariously bawdy version of "I Can Cook, Too." That is the only reasonable way to do it: Exaggerate a bit. Harwood's powerful voice was like some latter-day Ethel Merman. The audience reaction was so overwhelming that Harwood came back for another bit of the song as a kind of encore. I daresay she's doing as much for her current gig in the Beach Blanket Babylon shows. Long may she rave!

Cellist Wyrick is the former assistant principal of the S.F. Symphony, which he left behind for the Bridge Quartet. He played quite well, of course, but the first of the three Meditations from Mass sounds like preowned material, apart from being just dull. It's a little Bloch here and a little mild Bartók there. The simple truth is that all the best Bernstein comes from the 1940s, '50s, and early '60s. The late Bernstein compositions all fall flat.

They don't come close to the vibrancy of creations in the Symphonic Dances or the infectious Danzón from Fancy Free. (A special bow should have been given the percussionist playing woodblock for his exceptional accuracy during an awkward passage.) It would have been better to program the three-dance suite from Fancy Free than to lug out bits of Bernstein's failures from Mass and Songfest.

Clearly, the idea behind the programming was to play something of his serious-minded music. Swell ... but other fine possibilities exist amid the early works — say, some things from Bernstein's terrific score to the film On the Waterfront. I haven't seen that film in over 40 years, and yet the open fugue for strings still haunts me with its dramatic impact. It was altogether a fun evening, and a big success, especially with a fine string of guests in tow and MTT at his best. Only I wish they'd canned the weak stuff.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.