Spectacular centenary concert for Leonard Bernstein from the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Brett Mitchell with Morgan James – vocalist
Bernstein at 100

Three Dance Episodes from On the Town and two songs
Peter Pan
: ‘Dream with me’,
On the Waterfront
: symphonic suite
Overture and ‘It must be so’, and ‘Glitter and be gay’
West Side Story
: The Balcony Scene (‘Tonight’) and Symphonic Dances

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 11 May 2018, 6:30 pm

Faced with an auditorium less than half full for a concert to celebrate a hundred years of one of the most famous (I carefully refrain from using ‘greatest’) composers and conductors of the 20th century, raised interesting thoughts. One was that I had expected about this sized audience; that, before I’d seen the NZSO offer of big ticket discounts.

I’ve no doubt that everyone interested in classical music and broadly defined popular music recognises the name Bernstein, and would agree that he was a famous and important figure. Name his best known music! Well, of course West Side Story, and, mmm… and some might add Candide, the two Broadway musicals and the ballet Fancy Free, and a few would have heard Chichester Psalms (Orpheus Choir about a year ago), or Mass, and there are three symphonies, aren’t there??? Who’s heard them? And the attentive might recall Orchestra Wellington playing a couple of pieces in 2013 (the Serenade after Plato’s Symposium and Fancy Free), and a brave concert performance in 2012 of Candide from Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir.

But he doesn’t conform easily to the usual characterisation of a classical composer. Where are the piano sonatas, the other operas, the chamber or choral music? And for that matter, why aren’t his Broadway musicals or his orchestral music, other than what was on this evening’s programme, familiar?

The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story hasn’t been absent from the Wellington concert halls. The NZSO under Miguel Harth-Bedoya played them in October 2012.

On the Town
The pieces from the Broadway musical On the Town of 1944 (a search in the Middle C archive shows the dance episodes were performed by the then ‘Vector Wellington Orchestra’ in July 2009) comprised the three dance episodes and two songs. They opened the concert and brought soprano Morgan James to the stage to sing ‘I can cook too’ and ‘Some other Time’. American conductor Brett Mitchell who I’d heard in a lively, Broadway-style interview on Upbeat at midday, entered and immediately launched into a startling performance of Dance of the Great Lover, the first of the three dances from On the Town which rather astonished me for the super-raunchy, trumpet-attacks from nowhere, then throaty trombones, cutting clarinets (two guest clarinets, David McGregor and John Robinson, in the lead positions I noticed). There was nothing symphonically genteel about it and Mitchell exclaimed at its end, “the NZSO can swing!” I have sometimes dismissed remarks from conductors tackling this genre of American music, that the orchestra has a great feeling for its brazen energy, the rhythms and attack, as if the entire band had served its musical apprenticeship on Broadway. Here such praise seemed totally justified.

Then Morgan James arrived, in the first of four different costumes, each capturing the spirit of the songs she sang. She sang two from On the Town: ‘I can cook too’ and ’Some Other Time’. Of course, she was amplified (I doubt that the 1944 performances were? – miked voices on Broadway only became common in the 1950s. She is a Juilliard graduate and had of course learned how to enrich and project her voice properly. Though she has clearly learned how to use the microphone to advantage, why not let us hear the excellent, unmanipulated voice? Why all the pains to reproduce what Bernstein actually wrote in his score for the orchestra but falsify the voice?).

James’s vocal colours and command of dynamic variety were indeed spectacular and the combination of authentic orchestral sound and a voice that has roots deep in the worlds of Broadway, jazz, most areas of popular music, as well as the traditions and techniques of classical music, was both arresting and flashy. The contrast between her two songs was vivid: the self-confident attack of the Broadway ‘belting’ style of her first song, and her ‘Some Other Time’ that expressed a casual acceptance of the impermanence of a fleeting, shallow romance. And her tour de force, ‘Glitter and be gay’ from Candide, was her parting number; though it was touchingly followed by her encore: ‘There’s a place for us’ from West Side Story.

Likewise, the orchestra created entirely different moods with the other two dances from On the Town: muted trumpets, more prominent oboes and cor anglais, alto saxophone and a great variety of highly polished percussion.

On the Waterfront
The much-played symphonic suite from On the Waterfront employed most of the same characteristics as On the Town with occasional striking solos – from principal horn, from timpani, from tom toms, vibraphone and xylophone, and frequent opulent chorale-like passages from trombones and tuba. Again, there were all the hallmarks of a fine classical composer, a brilliant orchestrator, and above all an orchestra and conductor with all the swing and swagger of popular Broadway.

The overture to Candide has become one of Bernstein’s best known pieces, a compounding of Offenbach and the Chabrier of L’étoile, not to mention Broadway itself. And rather unlike the low-powered performance of Berlioz’s Carnaval romain overture the next evening, the utterly quintessential comedy overture.

Between ‘It must be so’ from Candide and ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story Morgan James spoke interestingly about her musical values, and ended with an almost disembodied top last note.

West Side Story
The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is a more standard concert work that captures the vitality, violence, anger and occasional calm lyricism (‘Somewhere’ and the Finale) of the score and the orchestra’s playing exhibited all those characteristics with tremendous energy and unflagging precision. Finger-clicking, a shrill whistle… Nowhere more vividly than in the riotous ‘Mambo’ where the only missing element was the dancers.  And then the calm after the long, grieving flute solo brought the suite to a lovely conclusion.

The clamorous applause belied the impression of a small audience.