Nearly three decades after he left us, Bernstein’s music seems to be in good hands and anything but forgotten. And his larger musical influence strongly endures.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Capturing the protean dynamo that was Leonard Bernstein in a single evening of music is a pretty tall order. But that’s just what the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), aided by a bevy of all-star soloists and prestigious guests, attempted at Tanglewood on Saturday night, what would have been Bernstein’s hundredth birthday.
Theirs was a gala concert and those don’t always dig too deeply. This one, though, worked better than most. Yes, it would have been nice to get a sampling of Bernstein’s more confrontational late music – there was nothing, vocal or instrumental, post-Mass (1971) – especially given the night’s recurring mentions (from the stage and in a couple of videos) about Bernstein’s view of art as a moral and political force.
Of course, several of those pieces (like Songfest and A Quiet Place) have been heard at Tanglewood over the last month, so it’s not as though they’ve been entirely neglected this summer. And the fare on offer did provide a good cross-section of the range of Bernstein’s compositional style while also celebrating his conducting career (with music by Copland and Mahler). On the whole, then, programmatically, things clicked.
Interpretively, they did, too.
Then again, with Saturday’s roster of performers, it should have been hard to come up with a different result. Indeed, the cast was an assortment worthy of the Grand Old Man, himself.
Audra McDonald was the night’s emcee. Several of Bernstein’s former collaborators and students participated: Christoph Eschenbach, Michael Tilson Thomas, Midori, Yo-Yo Ma, and Thomas Hampson. John Williams was there, too, with a new piece for the occasion, Highwood’s Ghost. Most conspicuously, there were the members of the generation that’s come to prominence since Bernstein’s death in 1990: Andris Nelsons, Nadine Sierra, Isabel Leonard, Kian Soltani, and Susan Graham among them. Additionally, the BSO was augmented by string players from the New York, Vienna, and Israel Philharmonics; Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (TMCO); Pacific Music Festival; and Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival – all ensembles with close Bernstein ties.
Given the size of the musical forces on stage, which also included the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) massed in the back, the evening’s performances came across with invigorating clarity and lightness.
Nelsons started things off with a warmly effervescent account of the Overture to Candide.
Eschenbach followed, leading accompaniments for, respectively, Midori and Soltani, in a pair of Bernstein’s concertante works. Midori turned in a limpid reading of the first movement of Bernstein’s Serenade, the same piece she made her Tanglewood debut with in 1986 (during which she famously broke strings on two consecutive violins during the finale). Cellist Soltani delivered a hypnotic, note-perfect performance of the last of the Three Meditations from Mass, perfectly teasing out the music’s balance of dancing energy and mysterious devotion.
In between, Keith Lockhart led soprano Sierra and the women of the TFC for a tender, lyrical account of “Kaddish 2” from Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3.
The night’s first half wrapped up with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting five excerpts from West Side Story. The BSO dove into the pummeling rhythms of the Prologue and accompanied the Jet Song with gritty style.
Tony Yazbeck was perfectly cast as Tony, singing “Maria” and his contributions in the “Tonight” quintet with effortless control and beauty of tone. Isabel Leonard’s Maria was rich and fervent in the last, as well as in “I Have a Love.” Jessica Vosk gave a commanding portrayal of Anita’s “A Boy Like That.”
After intermission, Tilson Thomas was back celebrating Bernstein the Conductor with the last third or so of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, from the introduction of “Simple Gifts” through to the end. This piece was one of Bernstein’s calling cards and it’s become one of Tilson Thomas’s, too; Saturday’s account was at once noble and nostalgic, especially over the work’s gently fading closing bars.
Williams’ Highwood’s Ghost came next. The fifteen-minute long piece takes its name from a supposedly haunted house on the Tanglewood grounds and received its premiere with the TMCO on August 19th. Scored for solo cello and harp plus a fairly large (though discreetly-employed) orchestra, it’s built around a pair of cadenza-like dialogues for the pair of soloists. The larger ensemble engages with them with impressive fluency, its textures recalling Williams’ film scores (like Close Encounters) more consciously than his concert music sometimes does.
It’s a perfectly-tailored showpiece for Yo-Yo Ma and BSO principal harp Jessica Zhou, for whom the solo parts were written. They played them with brio on Saturday. Williams, surely one of the spriest eighty-six-year-olds out there, conducted.
Framing the Copland and Williams pieces was music by Mahler. Bernstein may not have been the great Mahler savior he made himself out to be, but there’s no other composer with whom he was more closely associated. Both of Saturday’s Mahler selections (they were conducted by Nelsons) were particular favorites of his.
The first of them, “Der Schildwache Nachtlied” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, received a lustrous, introspective performance from Thomas Hampson, whose recordings of Mahler’s orchestral songs with Bernstein in the twilight of his life remain among the finest in the catalogue.
Then, to close out the night, Nelsons led the combined forces, plus vocalists Sierra and Susan Graham, in the choral finale of Mahler’s Symphony no. 2. When Bernstein conducted this piece it was difficult to imagine it being played any other way (even when he was doing/trying out strange things with the music). On Saturday, you could say the same thing about Nelsons’ reading, which was wisely paced, excellently balanced, beautifully sung, and always seemed to be following the long musical line. On the merits of these twenty minutes alone, his complete Mahler Two this fall in Boston ought to be extraordinary.
A long, loud ovation brought the entire cast back to the stage and McDonald led them in an encore of “Somewhere.” This proved a triumphant, though slightly wistful, end to the evening: the fact was alluded to near the end of McDonald’s comments that a number of people on stage Saturday had “missed” Bernstein, their careers only beginning (sometimes long) after his death. And, indeed, the heady group that feted him on the same stage for his seventieth birthday in 1988 – it included the likes of Lauren Bacall, Victor Borge, Lukas Foss, Betty Comden, Mstislav Rostropovich, Seiji Ozawa, Frederica von Stade, Christa Ludwig, and Jerry Hadley – has almost entirely passed from the scene (John Williams, Tilson Thomas, and Midori were the most notable holdovers from that famous event).
That said, nearly three decades after he left us, Bernstein’s music seems to be in good hands and anything but forgotten. And his larger musical influence strongly endures.
If you missed the Gala, not to worry: PBS taped the whole shebang and will broadcast it in December, a fitting ending to Bernstein’s centennial year.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.