Review: Bernstein On Stage!

A composer, conductor, pianist, educator, author, TV/radio host, activist and more, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) is a towering figure in 20th century music. He is still hugely influential far beyond all those pop cultural mentions (revered by Sean Penn in The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, name-checked by REM in It’s The End Of The World As We Know It [And I Feel Fine], and variously joshed about in The Simpsons, of course).

One of many global events this year to celebrate his centenary, this ASO performance was conducted and presented by John Mauceri who has the right to call Leonard ‘Lenny’ as he knew and worked with the guy after they first met in 1971. While there was fond humour when John spoke, there was sadness too. And more than a little reverence.

Taking to the stage for this first performance with the ASO, there was an awkward moment when a sound problem robbed us of the chance to hear Billie Holiday perform Big Stuff from Bernstein’s Fancy Free. Mauceri graciously and amusingly apologised and, instead , everyone leapt into the rousing overture from On The Town.

Offering commentary upon Leonard’s life as we moved through his key works between 1944 and 1976, Mauceri made nice jokes about ‘menu songs’ like OTT’s I Can Cook, Too (sung with glee by mezzo-soprano Kim Criswell), touched upon Bernstein’s dabblings in radical left-wing politics and even threw in a veiled and in-context gag about “arrogant presidents”.  And it goes without saying that the orchestra was in top form too with the infectious energy of Town’s best-known showstopper New York, New York gorgeously captured and the featured singers making a meal of Trouble In Tahiti’s possibly semi-autobiographical tunes.

After the interval, soprano Lorina Gore virtually brought the house down with numbers from Bernstein’s frequently-altered take on Candide!, and then we were into West Side Story’s Mambo, Maria and Tonight although Mauceri wryly noted that it was nearly called East Side Story and could have had a less potently multicultural plot.

The Adelaide Chamber Singers appeared to contribute to three songs from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which at time was considered a disaster but has since been extensively re-evaluated, and it was all capped off by the epilogue/finale/encore Some Other Time from On The Town, which featured a quiet, problem-free taped excerpt of Bernstein himself singing a verse. Beautiful.

The second and final performance of Bernstein On Stage! was on Sunday March 18.

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