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Bernstein’s Theater Music Gets Retrospective From John Mauceri and a Lot of Friends

November 21, 2017

New West Symphony

No single tribute concert to Leonard Bernstein can possibly cover all, or even most, of the facets of this protean American genius. But Bernstein On Stage, a two-and-a-half-hour-long evening of Lenny’s theater music at the Valley Performing Arts Center Friday night, may be about as thorough, as logical, and as affectionately-conceived a survey as we are likely to hear this season.

Bernstein On Stage featured a veritable army of 130 performers –  the New West Symphony (a Ventura County-based ensemble consisting mainly of studio musicians), the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, women from the Areté Vocal Ensemble and Cal Lutheran University Choir, and four vocal soloists. And the whole shebang was led by Bernstein protegé and longtime editor John Mauceri, who, in collaboration with VPAC’s executive director Thor Steingraber, put the program together.

Mauceri chose a chronological presentation, beginning in 1944, when Bernstein broke through as a boy wonder, and ending in 1976 when the master was navigating tough personal times. Many aspects of the Bernstein sound were there from the beginning, and how his music picked up more influences along the way while deepening in portent.

Of course, there was music from West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide. But there is plenty of esoterica in the Bernstein catalogue waiting to be rediscovered, and it was the lesser-known music that provided most of the emotional high points of the evening.

The concert was launched with a vintage recording of Billie Holiday singing the prologue of Fancy Free, “Big Stuff” (yes, that’s whom this song was originally written for). Gradually, the orchestra slid into the arrangement, which then segued into the rarely heard Overture to On The Town – a conventional potpourri of the show’s tunes set in period Broadway fox trots.

Mauceri devoted a lot of time to Trouble in Tahiti, starting with the jazzy Prelude’s ironic paean to `50s suburbia, then skipping ahead to “What A Movie!,” the fevered satire of movie musicals, and continuing straight through to the end of the opera. Wonderful Town, which, in the Bernstein centennial year, may be regaining some traction, got four numbers, and Mass was represented by “A Simple Song.”

The most significant excavation came with three numbers from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the “couldn’t miss” 1976 Bicentennial show that turned out to be an epic flop and was virtually erased from history. The Prelude has Bernstein’s emotionally ambiguous harmonies stamped throughout, with echoes of Copland and Mahler. The high-stepping “President Jefferson March” sounds like a younger cousin of the First Introit from Mass, and “To Make Us Proud” is as eloquent a summation as anything Bernstein ever wrote in any medium. Clearly, this show should be revisited — the present political climate may demand it.

Bernstein’s music is admittedly difficult to perform, and at times, the New West Symphony could not provide the liftoff and pizzazz that it needs. Generally, the more familiar the music, the more idiomatic their playing was.

Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán had her best moments in the more operatic stretches of Trouble In Tahiti and the campy “high-middle-Polish” of Candide’s “I Am Easily Assimilated.” Soprano Celena Shafer well understood the fluttery satire of “Glitter And Be Gay,” and tenor Casey Candebat made lovely work of “Eldorado,” singing the now-rarely-used 1983 version retitled “Ballad of the New World.” Baritone Davis Gaines struck the most equitable balance between Broadway and opera of the four. 

Mauceri prefaced everything with a welcome supply of commentary in the wry, erudite manner that he perfected during his 16 summers (1991-2006) with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. And he added a touching encore, accompanying a 1987 recording of Eileen Farrell and Bernstein himself performing On the Town’s wistful “Some Other Time,” with Lenny playing piano and singing in that unmistakable bullfrog voice.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.

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