Boston Pops Pays Tribute to Bernstein
Performances: Tuesday, June 3, 8 p.m., Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, Mass.
Box Office: 617-266-1200, 888-266-1200, or online at www.bso.org
The Boston Pops, like many other major orchestras across the country this year, are celebrating what would have been Leonard Bernstein's 90th birthday. Known most widely for his association with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein nevertheless had very strong ties to Boston. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, raised in Brookline, and schooled at Boston Latin and Harvard University, Bernstein taught and performed at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for 50 consecutive years. He conducted his very last concert, Beethoven's Seventh, at the Lenox estate two months before his death.
On May 7-10, the Boston Pops opened its 123rd season with a rousing tribute to Bernstein that featured the full Boston Pops Orchestra, not the slimmed-down Esplanade ensemble that occasionally takes the stage at Symphony Hall. The May 9-10 concerts also welcomed 30 students from the Boston Conservatory Musical Theater Division performing a dazzling Bernstein on Broadway segment. This latter program will be repeated on Tuesday, June 3.
Maestro Keith Lockhart and company give rich, resonant life to the legendary composer and conductor's most notable works. The first act, all instrumental, begins with For Lenny, a medley that blends familiar passages from Bernstein's classical, theatrical and film works into an original piece arranged by Boston Pops Laureate Conductor John Williams. Accompanied by slides that chronicle Bernstein's life and career, this retrospective opener sets an anticipatory tone for the evening, whetting the appetite for more of the dissonant, jazzy, distinctly bohemian American sound that has come to be identified exclusively with Bernstein.
Next is the Suite from Fancy Free, the 1944 Jerome Robbins ballet that was the precursor to Bernstein's first Broadway musical, On the Town. The Pops musicians nimbly work their way through the three dance variations, creating intensely different tones for each segment. Horns and percussion bring a slightly distorted, carnival-like feel to the modern Galop. Then intense strings establish a somber mood for the Waltz that is suddenly punctuated by fervent trumpets and woodwinds only to give way just as quickly to a harmonious finish of strings and reeds. The closing piece is a sprightly Danzon that starts out with a playful fluidity then builds to a pulsating urban rhythm.
A Suite from Bernstein's only film score, On the Waterfront, is brilliantly rendered to close out Act I. Evocative stills from the movie starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden dramatize the stirring mood changes that the orchestra seamlessly engineers. Sounds of danger, passion, hope, violence, disillusionment and even delicate romance are all expressed with an urgency and intensity as iconic as the movie itself. Fifty-four years later, Bernstein's powerful score proves itself to be as integral to the film's knock-out punch as Brando's smoldering performance or Elia Kazan's unflinching direction.
Act II is an exuberant dedication to Bernstein on Broadway. Selections from On the Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Candide are semi-staged, giving the BoCo students ample opportunity to act, dance and sing their way through 10 popular selections. While the youthful voices don't always mine the deep riches of Bernstein's complex music or fully embrace the sophisticated lyrics of Comden and Green, Stephen Sondheim, and Latouche and Wilbur, the young men and women demonstrate their ease on stage, performing with a style and confidence that is joyfully infectious.
A trio of able young sailors (Tim Taylor, Dane Reis, and Bud Weber) offers an energetic "New York, New York," executing BoCo choreographer Michelle Chasse's athletic dance sequences with Gene Kelly-esque brio. Chris Ignacio's lovely tenor fills "Lonely Town" with suitable romantic longing, and Jennifer Cohen struts out her sassy stuff with "I Can Cook, Too." Keith Lockhart gets into the act during Raquel Sandler's flirtatious "A Little Bit in Love," playing the smitten object of her affections while never missing a beat at the podium. A dozen members of the theatrical ensemble then join Lindsey Larson and Ashley Kenney in dancing akimbo to the musically challenging syncopation of "Wrong Note Rag."
In between vocal selections, the Pops orchestra sets its trademark musicianship loose on two instrumentals, "The Great Lover" dance sequence from On the Town and "Mambo" from West Side Story. The first perfectly captures all the swagger and masculine confidence of the title's character, while the second insistently expresses the danger, passion, youthful urgency and impulsivity that turn a challenge dance into an invitation to rumble.
The anger of "Mambo" segues beautifully into the optimism of "One Hand, One Heart," but the overly technical vocal deliveries by Mike Barry and Diana Jelmini rob the piece of its exquisite romanticism and ardor. Tim Taylor singing the role of Tony in the subsequent "Tonight Quintet," however, gives full, glorious expression to the young Romeo's hopes and dreams. Joining him in excellent harmony are John Bambery, Kendall Thompson, Jessica Norland and Stephen Cerf.
"The Best of All Possible Worlds" from Candide follows, receiving sprightly treatment by the Pops as well as from Austin Ku as Dr. Pangloss and David Vogel, Lindsey St. Onge, Caitlin Doonan, and Joseph Kamay as his classroom of eager students. The night ends with the stirring finale from Candide, "Make Our Garden Grow." Wonderful vocalists Matthew Thompson as Candide and Stephanie Sanford as Cunegonde lead the orchestra and the full choral ensemble in a spine tingling rendition of Bernstein's deceptively simple yet magnificently powerful ode to optimism and the ultimate goodness of the human spirit.
A Boston Pops concert wouldn't be complete without encores, and this evening the Maestro and company served up four of them. First came the Sammy Cahn tuner "High Hopes," performed as a tribute to special guests from the Joslin Diabetes Center. Then a "special premiere" of a newly conceived rendering of "Fiddle Faddle" delighted the audience with a very funny video of orchestra members negotiating Boston traffic on their way to work. Lockhart and his first chairs were shown traveling by cab, bicycle, T, and even scull - undaunted by rain, gridlock, large instruments, or unsynchronized rowers. Finally the Pops got the crowd on its feet with Benny Goodman's pulsating "Sing, Sing, Sing" and the ever popular "Stars and Stripes Forever."