A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein – Opening Night at Carnegie Hall 2008

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bernstein
LABELS: SFS Media
WORKS: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story; A Quiet Place – selections; On the Town – selections; etc
PERFORMER: Christine Ebersole (vocalist), Thomas Hampson (baritone), Yo-Ya Ma (cello), Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
CATALOGUE NO: SFS 8219360020

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This 90th birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein opened the 2008-09 season at Carnegie Hall.

Mostly drawn from his theatre works, the programme offers a good balance between the serious and jocular, and features several interviews with the artists as well as commentary delivered from the stage by conductor and host, Michael Tilson Thomas. He informs us that we should not airbrush Lenny’s personality into that of an ‘avuncular Jewish Santa Claus,’ but the chosen selections do slight his more abrasive and questioning sides to some extent.

The opening Symphonic Dances from West Side Story are immaculately played by the San Francisco Symphony but are too plush for my taste, with none of the manic intensity that marks Bernstein’s classic recording with the New York Philharmonic.

His most daring stage works, Candide and Mass, are represented only by the instrumental (and therefore non-controversial) Meditation from the latter, albeit in a searing performance by Yo-Yo Ma. Instead of the burning religious and philosophical issues addressed in the symphonies we have the psychodrama of A Quiet Place and Trouble in Tahiti, although ‘To What You Said…’ from Songfest provides a brief dose of universality.

As always, Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Hampson are responsive to word and line, but the distant placement of their voices makes them sound a bit tired.

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Finally, On the Town provides two of the evening’s highlights: ‘I Can Cook’, in a punchy rendition by Christine Ebersole, and the concluding ‘Ya Got Me’, sung by the assembled forces as a birthday greeting, but also ringing out as a welcome reminder of Lenny’s protean generosity. Howard Goldstein