Review: The Stars Align To Celebrate Bernstein’s Centennial at Tanglewood
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, August 28, 2018
Thousands gathered on the grounds of Tanglewood to celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s hundredth birthday, in a culmination of the past year’s world-wide celebration of his life and music. Under a bright full moon, in crisp pine-scented air, an impressive number of picnickers crowded the lawn, and filled the Koussevitzky Music Shed, for this star-studded gala presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and friends. The evening’s ambitious program balanced some of Bernstein’s own compositions with other composers’ music reflecting something about him. BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons kicked the party off with an effervescent Overture to Candide, as natural an opener as Bernstein ever penned. Then, rather than progress through a roster of “greatest hits,” the program shifts gears, and takes a look at the depth of Bernstein’s artistry.
As master of ceremonies, Audra McDonald is a sprightly narrator, inviting everyone, from the chorus behind her to the rear of the lawn, into the celebration, her Illuminating commentary emphasizing how Bernstein thrived through turbulent times, that he was an artist defined by his moral commitment to political activism. Also, a video screen would descend to enhance the proceedings, in a cleverly edited video documentary drawing a moving portrait of the man, through photography, recordings, and especially, clips of interviews with Bernstein’s students and collaborators, from Marin Aslop to Stephen Sondheim.
Bernstein’s serious side finds upbeat voice in his violin concerto, the Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) and next, Christoph Eschenbach conducted the first movement with soloist Midori. She shared an amusing anecdote in the video sequence about performing the Serenade as a 14-year-old on this stage, with Bernstein conducting, in which she broke multiple strings, having to progress through three different violins to finish the performance.
Keith Lockhart then stepped onto the podium, and we delve into the heady religiosity of LB’s third symphony, the “Kaddish,” with the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus supporting a glowing Nadine Sierra as soprano soloist, in the rewarding second Kaddish. Emerging cello star Kian Soltani then joins the orchestra for a clean, riveting account of Meditation No. 3 from MASS conducted by Eschenbach.
The evening’s first half was capped by a return to LB’s Broadway output, with Michael Tilson Thomas, a protegé of the composer, expertly leading selections from West Side Story. A cast of Jets and Sharks, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, set the scene with a spirited “Jet Song” (a striking contrast to the solemn Kaddish and MASS excerpts). Musical theatre star Tony Yazbeck, as Tony, soars in a heartfelt “Maria,” while Isabel Leonard (as Maria) and Jessica Vosk (Anita) bring searing heat to their duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” The rousing “Tonight (Quintet)” brings the audience to its feet.
The second half of the concert began with Thomas Hampson, renowned baritone, singing Mahler’s orchestral song “Der Schildwache Nachtlied” (The Sentry’s Nightsong), from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth’s Magic Horn) with aplomb, followed by a transcendent reading of the finale of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, a work sentimentally appropriate for the occasion, representing Copland’s mentorship of a young Lenny stemming from his days as a student here in the Berkshire hills.
John Williams then conducted his own new concert work, Highwood’s Ghost, An Encounter for Harp, Cello, and Orchestra, written for the Bernstein centennial. Concerning the haunted Highwood Manor House on Tanglewood grounds, this staggering, suspenseful work takes the listener on a trepidatious journey into the paranormal, filled with striking, adrenaline-filled orchestral effects, and mystery-filled lyricism. Yo-Yo Ma and BSO principal harpist Jessica Zhou bring probing virtuosity to their rangy, intricate solo parts.
There is a famous photograph of Bernstein conducting at Tanglewood, almost falling backward in his white tuxedo, arms flung high in the air in a moment of resounding ecstasy. My theory is that he can only be conducting Mahler — perhaps, the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection” — so, it is especially fitting that the concert climax with this rapturous finale, involving the full chorus and two soloists (Nadine Sierra, soprano, and Susan Graham, mezzo), with Nelsons channeling Bernstein on the podium.
You might have wondered whether Audra McDonald would find “a time and place” to “somewhere” lend her beloved voice, perhaps in a stirring encore with the entire company. This electric evening will be broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances beginning December 28, 2018, preserving for the future the contribution of this extraordinary group of artists, and further sustaining the legacy of Leonard Bernstein himself, America’s composer, conductor, and teacher.
The Bernstein Centennial Celebration Concert at the Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lennox, MA, on August 25, 2018. Directed by James Darrah; choreography by Joshua Bergasse. Boston Symphony Orchestra, joined by musicians from the New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Pacific Music Festival, and Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival; conductors: Andris Nelsons, Christoph Eschenbach, Keith Lockhart, Michael Tilson Thomas, and John Williams; Audra McDonald, host and vocalist; guest artists: Midori, Yo-Yo Ma, Kian Soltani, Jessica Zhou, Nadine Sierra, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Isabel Leonard, Jessica Vosk, Tony Yazbeck; Tanglewood Festival Chorus, James Burton, conductor.
BERNSTEIN Overture to Candide
BERNSTEIN “Phaedrus” from Serenade (after Plato’s ‘Symposium’) for violin and orchestra
BERNSTEIN “Kaddish 2” from Symphony No. 3
BERNSTEIN “Meditation 3” for cello and orchestra from Mass
BERNSTEIN Selections from West Side Story
MAHLER Song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
COPLAND Finale of Appalachian Spring
John WILLIAMS Highwood’s Ghost, An Encounter for cello, harp, and orchestra
MAHLER Finale from Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”
Cover: (l. to r.) Alexander Bernstein, Nina Bernstein Simmons, Andris Nelsons, Jamie Bernstein, John Williams, Steven Spielberg, and Bradley Cooper at the Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood; photo by Chris Lee.