United States Bernstein, Eric Benjamin: Soloists, Canton Symphony Orchestra / Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Performing Arts Hall, Canton, Ohio, 6.10.2018. (MSJ)
Bernstein – Trouble in Tahiti; Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Eric Benjamin – To LB: A Thank You Note
Tom Wachunas regularly writes about concerts of the Canton Symphony for Seen and Heard International, and reading his rave reviews, I had become very curious about what is going on in this town (pop. 70,000) just an hour south of Cleveland. When the opportunity came to hear the orchestra in a program saluting Leonard Bernstein, courtesy of sponsor Western Reserve Public Media, I couldn’t resist.
After attending a pallid Mahler Second Symphony a couple of days previously, delivered by some very big names up the road in Severance Hall, I was skeptical about what kind of music making I would find in a much smaller city. Turns out it was one world-class evening, and not the one by the famous folks.
Remarkably, the concert started with a performance of Bernstein’s one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti. One-act operas that aren’t Cavalleria rusticana or Pagliacci don’t tend to be heard often, thanks to the difficulty of multiple sets, costumes, props and so forth. This opera is also rare because it’s been overshadowed by some of Bernstein’s more famous pieces. But it deserves to be heard, because it is first-rate. It starts off with a sassy vocal trio — here, Hilerie Klein Rensi, George Milosh, and Scott Esposito — gushing about life in suburbia. They rattle off platitudes and attitudes in Bernstein’s own lyrics, skewered in places by dropped beats and tart harmonies.
Then come the main characters, Sam (Dan Boye) and Dinah (Ellie Jarrett Shattles), a married couple who have all but worn out the love that brought them together. As we first meet them, they are adept at aggravating each other and all but ignoring their talked-about-but-never-seen son, Junior. The fact that the aggressive, posturing father was given the same first name as Bernstein’s own father was crystallized when Bernstein wrote a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, the full-length A Quiet Place, premiered in 1983. In the bleak sequel, we meet Junior and find that the composer clearly wove autobiographical elements into both works.
This production set the opera in and around the orchestra onstage in Canton’s Umstattd Performing Arts Hall. Director Craig Joseph found ingenious ways to involve the jazz trio members in the scenes, so that they became a mid-twentieth century version of a Greek chorus, commenting on and influencing the action. Rensi became Sam’s secretary at work, dropping her file of papers and bending over coyly in front of him, while one of the men became Dinah’s psychiatrist, taking notes and scowling as she sang her dream about finding ‘a quiet place’. Josh Erichson’s snazzy costumes further defined the time period with flair.
All this would be dross without a shrewd musical component, but it was immediately evident that Zimmermann had the measure of the score, pacing the opening trio briskly, but with expressively pointed phrasing. He was powerful in his shaping of the emotional scenes, finding the dark undercurrents that make a constant undertow beneath the opera’s comic highs.
The singers were top-notch. Ellie Jarrett Shattles combined a lovely voice with an unerring sense of just how far to push Dinah’s nagging. She absolutely nailed Dinah’s show-stopping aria describing an inane Hollywood movie (the Trouble in Tahiti of the title), bringing hearty laughs from the audience. But she was also very touching in Dinah’s lonely moments. Dan Boye was swaggering in Sam’s aria at the gym, but moving in the way he brought out Sam’s sense of pain at not knowing how to connect with his family. Rensi, Milosh, and Esposito were a delight as the trio, dispatching their parts with relish. The only thing that could possibly have been any better was if the screen and projector in Umstattd Hall were put to use with supertitles — even everyday English is hard to decipher when sung operatically.
After the reduced orchestral ensemble played the opera as if written for them, the full ensemble had a chance to do literally that in the second half. Eric Benjamin has had a number of pieces performed by the Canton Symphony over the years, so Zimmermann specifically asked him to write one for this concert. The result is To LB: A Thank You Note, specifically recalling Benjamin’s time working with Bernstein at Tanglewood in the 1980s. While it isn’t an imitation of the composer’s style, it does nonetheless engage with Bernstein’s legacy in a way that few composers have so far done, playing with a mix of jazzy tonality and irregular rhythms. It opens amusingly with the beginning chords of the last movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony (which Benjamin conducted for Bernstein to critique) but quickly ventures elsewhere. First it jumps into a lively and vital passage before settling into something movingly reflective and heartfelt — given strong advocacy by Zimmermann and his powerful players. Rare for a new piece, it received a standing ovation.
The last work on the printed program was the glorious set of Symphonic Dances extracted from Bernstein’s score for West Side Story. Zimmermann had a perfect touch, punching the dissonant jazzy moments, then melting into the tender ones. The Canton players delivered in-the-moment vividness on page after page. Near the end, the violins showed an inwardness and tenderness that were breathtaking. It’s astonishing that Zimmermann is entering his 38th season as the head of this orchestra and is still able to deliver such fresh, moving results.
After a rapturous reception of the dances, Zimmermann said, ‘How about one more?’ and launched into a spacious but joyful trek through Bernstein’s Candide Overture, full of character and flair, and still with great poise from the winds and brass, who had been playing nonstop the whole concert.
Canton possesses a rare gem in the partnership of Gerhardt Zimmermann and this orchestra, and I thank Tom Wachunas for allowing me to step in for one evening to rave about this tremendous artistic alchemy. The more famous folks up the road should be so lucky.
Mark Sebastian Jordan