Celebrating Bernstein in Style, with the Legacy of the Jets and the Sharks

United StatesUnited States Bernstein: Isabel Leonard (mezzo-soprano), Ryan McKinny (bass-baritone), Nicholas Hu (boy soprano), San Francisco Symphony and Chorus / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 23.9.2017. (HS)

Bernstein – Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs; Chichester Psalms; Arias and Barcarolles (orch. Bruce Coughlin); Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Every American orchestra is finding ways to feature the music of Leonard Bernstein this season to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday year. With Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm, San Francisco scatters five Bernstein-centered concerts through the 2017-2018 calendar, including a semi-staged Candide in January and a live orchestra accompanying the film of West Side Story in February. A November concert pairs his Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety, with Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.

Tilson Thomas knew Bernstein. Programs and promotional materials are filled with snapshots of the two together. And in Tilson Thomas’ own works, one can hear echoes of the older composer’s influence.

This program underlined West Side Story, a wellspring for Bernstein. By 1956, when the show took Broadway by storm, he had already established himself as a composer for the concert hall and the theater. Combining Broadway pizzazz with classical forms and structure cemented his signature style, which carried over into the concert hall. It was fitting to end this extraordinary program, heard Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall in the third of four performances, with Symphonic Dances, the popular suite from the show.

Previous generations of classical musicians could hardly shed a certain sense of stiffness to capture the vitality, swing and sway of the jazz and Latin American rhythms and musical gestures, originally written for a Broadway pit band. Today, most orchestras can articulate this music (as well as Gershwin’s, which requires a similar sense of swing) but seldom with the naturalness this ensemble and this conductor can achieve.

Exhibit A for this was Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, which opened the program. A hard-driving big-band score originally written for clarinetist Woody Herman and his band (but never performed by them), received its debut in 1955, as an example of using jazz in classical forms on one of Bernstein’s Omnibus programs. With the orchestra’s musicians enhanced by a line of saxophones, principal clarinetist Carey Bell delivered the solo intended for Herman with all the clarity and swing anyone could want. The band got the juices flowing without missing a note.

Music included in, or intended for, the West Side Story score appeared elsewhere on this program, including Chichester Psalms, the soulful work for chorus and orchestra that concluded the first half. In commissioning it in 1963 for a 1965 musical celebration, the dean of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England, noted that the church “would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.” Bernstein obliged, using material in a section for male chorus that recycles music written for, but then cut from, the show’s Prologue.

The symphony’s chorus and boy soprano Nicholas Hu distinguished themselves with emotionally direct performances of these settings of six Biblical psalms, reaching thrilling climaxes but also caressing quieter phrases with heart-stopping delicacy. The orchestral contribution was totally in sync with them.

Tilson Thomas was one of the two pianists who played the world premiere in 1988 of Arias and Barcarolles, Bernstein’s last major work. The song cycle, orchestrated by Bruce Coughlan with uncanny Bernstein-ness shortly after the composer’s death in 1990, looks at love from a range of unconventional viewpoints. Bernstein wrote most of the poems, reflections on his own personal history. They have a generally light-hearted feel but retain an undertone of sincerity, sometimes with a sardonic edge. The music plays cleverly with the lyrics,  sometimes with self references. In “Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight,” the music for the wayward kids could have been lifted right out of the gang’s chatter in West Side Story.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny lavished gorgeous vocal texture on their respective lines and framed both the serious gestures and the jokes with appropriate facial expressions.

This orchestra has made the Symphonic Dances something of a specialty, using it often on tour, and their comfort with its ins and outs made it come alive again. Bringing out the many contrapuntal complexities without losing the brash swing of the  bebop-infused phrases, Tilson Thomas showed all of its color and restlessness, and the ensemble offered beautifully supple playing in the softer, more romantic sections. The bittersweet finish struck just the right balance.

Harvey Steiman

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