Tanglewood goes all out for Lenny on his birthday centennial
LENOX — It seemed like a near-impossible task: How to do justice to musician extraordinaire Leonard Bernstein in a three-hour centennial birthday celebration at Tanglewood, where his half-century career began, flourished and ended seven weeks before his death.
The challenge was to encapsulate without excess and over-the-top idolatry this cross-cultural 20th century celebrity's lasting achievements as conductor, Broadway, ballet and concert hall composer, inspirational educator and TV host.
The result on Saturday night before about 12, 500 concertgoers was a model of musical integrity, crafted with skill and restraint by the Boston Symphony's artistic administrator Tony Fogg and his team — a two-year investment of intense planning that yielded one of the most remarkable evenings in Tanglewood's 81-year history.
Produced with an eye toward an international TV audience that will see an edited version, the gala event was hosted by Broadway star Audra McDonald, the epitome of class, who delivered Stephen Wadsworth's inspired narration with her customary flair and poise.
Wadsworth, the noted theater director who collaborated with Bernstein on the opera "A Quiet Place" in 1983, rose to the occasion by highlighting LB's greatest achievements without glossing over his exceedingly complex and troubled personality.
Two filmed segments contributed immeasurably to an understanding of Bernstein's impact on the American public: A video chronicle of his close ties with Tanglewood since entering the class of 1940 at the BSO's new summer institute, and a tribute reel of comments by colleagues and proteges (a list including Seiji Ozawa, John Williams, Marin Alsop and Michael Tilson Thomas) book-ended by especially illuminating remarks by the orchestra's dynamic music director Andris Nelsons.
The concert, performed by the BSO with members of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, the New York, Vienna and Israel Philharmonics, as well as the Pacific and Schleswig-Holstein Music Festivals co-founded by Bernstein, was shrewdly conceived to showcase his wide-ranging talents and two of his most-revered composers, Mahler and Copland.
As a tasting menu, the musical feast succeeded beyond already-high expectations, thanks not only to the dedicated planners but to the artists selected for their ties to Bernstein or, in Nelsons' case, his obvious affinity for the music championed by the honoree.
As a curtain-raiser, the "Candide" Overture is a natural choice, conducted by Nelsons with panache and vibrancy. The first movement of Bernstein's Serenade based on Plato's "Symposium" — actually, a violin concerto — was performed by Midori in a surprisingly understated and cautious manner, with Christoph Eschenbach, who worked with Bernstein in the 1980s, on the podium. No risk of two broken strings this time, 32 years after the teenage violinist's famous, narrowly-averted disaster with the composer conducting the BSO, barely missing a beat.
Bernstein's lifelong crisis of faith, captured in his "Kaddish" Symphony No. 3, was brought forth to great effect by the outstanding young soprano Nadine Sierra and women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, all led by Keith Lockhart with his customary skill.
Likewise, the Meditation No. 3 from "Mass," LB's 1971 confrontation with God and a troubled nation, ahead of its time but now justly appreciated, received a captivating performance by 20-year-old cellist Kian Soltani, who's clearly destined for a major career.
No Bernstein tribute would be imaginable without "West Side Story." The assembled artists — opera's Isabel Leonard as Maria, Broadway's Tony Yasbeck as Tony, Jessica Vosk as Anita, Clyde Alves as Riff and DJ Petrosino as Bernardo — performed highlights with highly distinctive vocal and acting skills. The Sharks and Jets, portrayed by members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, provided lively backup. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a vivacious performance.This was among the evening's most memorable highlights.
After intermission, baritone and close Bernstein colleague Thomas Hampson, in excellent voice, performed "The Sentry's Night Song" from Mahler's "The Youth's Magic Horn," with Nelsons back on the podium. As a supreme interpreter of this great song cycle, Hampson sang with conviction and a keen understanding of the text.
Tilson Thomas, MTT as he's known nowadays, seeks, either consciously or unconsciously, to channel Bernstein in appearance and conducting technique. In the finale from Copland's "Appalachian Spring" — from the complete ballet rather than the condensed suite most commonly performed — he conveyed Copland's incorporation of the familiar Shaker hymn ("Simple Gifts") with appropriate majesty, but the hushed, prayerful conclusion lacked the poignancy achieved by Bernstein in his performances and recordings of this American classic.
John Williams, recalling Bernstein's fascination with a ghostly presence at the BSO's then newly acquired manor house, composed "Highwood's Ghost" this year for cello, harp and orchestra. With Yo-Yo Ma and the orchestra's estimable principal harpist Jessica Zhou as soloists, Williams conjured up the mystery and spectral essence of this fanciful composition, which received its world premiere a week earlier at Tanglewood.
It would be hard to imagine a more inspired and appropriate finale to the evening than the choral conclusion of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony.
Nelsons is a leading interpreter of this monumental work, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus's hushed entry was otherworldly in its effect. With inspired solos by Nadine Sierra and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, and the response by the BSO and guest musicians to Nelsons' authoritative mastery of the score, this was a memorable climax to an evening that surely will be remembered as one of Tanglewood's greatest successes.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551
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