Bernstein 90th-birthday Bash in Snow Country

January 20, 2009 | By David Mermelstein
MINNEAPOLIS — That Leonard Bernstein would have turned 90 last August continues to provide a convenient – if not necessarily persuasive – excuse for music festivals, the latest one being at Orchestra Hall here, with the Minnesota Orchestra and its music director, Osmo Vänskä, as the driving force. Like Carnegie’s Hall’s Bernstein bash, “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” which concluded last month, this one culminates in a performance of the sprawling “Mass,” on Jan. 22 and 23.

“Bernstein on Broadway” opened the festival on Jan. 15, a more or less a pops affair conducted by Vänskä with three musical-theater singers as guest artists: Christiane Noll, Rachel York and Doug LaBreque – all necessarily amplified, alas. Programs like this fall into the “what’s not to like?” category, unless, of course, you happen not to want to hear “Maria” for the umpteenth time. What made the concert interesting, at least for an outsider, was not observing how the singers fared – generally well – but rather how Vänskä, a critical darling if hardly a household name in America, would manage in such populist fare.

Extremely well, it turns out. Summoning about as much verve and obvious ebullience as does Michael Tilson Thomas, the master of such material in the concert hall, Vänskä enthusiastically offered up both the familiar --“Mambo” from “West Side Story,” the Overture to “Candide” and “Three Dance Episodes for Orchestra” from “On the Town” – and the less well-known, including two arias from “Trouble in Tahiti” and the apt “Take Care of This House” from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Bernstein’s notorious Bicentennial flop and last Broadway show.

The orchestra responded in kind, digging into the tuneful music with straight-ahead, unaffected performances that made one appreciate anew Bernstein’s genius as a theater composer. Notable too was the singers’ absence of affectation, especially York’s tender account of “Take Care of This House,” Noll’s intense and vulnerable “What a Movie” from “Trouble in Tahiti” and their joyful duet of the infectious “Wrong Note Rag” from “Wonderful Town.”

The program’s only outright dud was – of all things – “Glitter and Be Gay,” from “Candide,” which for some reason Noll opted to lard with shtick, including kissing the obviously willing Vänskä midway through the number. With Bernstein generally, less is more, but in this song particularly, where even less can be too much, the lack of restraint really detracted.

“Bernstein in the Concert Hall” followed on Jan. 16. The programming options with a title like that are legion, so the bill – “Slava! A Political Overture,” “Halil,” “Divertimento for Orchestra,” “Sonata for Clarinet and Orchestra” and the “Jeremiah” Symphony – proved something of a disappointment in context, the material either too minor or too earnest.

The chances of hearing “Slava!” (1977), a fanfare written for Mstislav Rostropovich’s inaugural season at the National Symphony, or “Divertimento for Orchestra” (1980), a pastiche composed for the Boston Symphony’s centenary, are pretty slim, so for Bernstein completists, these may have been once-in-a-lifetime encounters. Both are purpose-built showcases that highlight various orchestral choirs, here to outstanding effect, especially in the chirruping woodwinds and warm, sonorous brasses. On the other hand, the glib musical in-jokes (“Candide” is referenced in the former) and slick, surface charms (the latter sounds like Ives without the imagination) put both pieces squarely in the once-is-enough category.

In “Halil” (1981), subtitled “Nocturne for Flute and Orchestra” and written for the Israel Philharmonic, principal flute Adam Kuenzel lent the virtuosic solo part (Jean-Pierre Rampal gave the work’s premiere) a rich, seductive tone. The music has ravishing moments but too often descends into mawkishness.

If Richard Stoltzman had got his way, “Halil” would have had a cousin in the form of a clarinet concerto, but Bernstein never found the time. He did, however, sanction the orchestration of his youthful Clarinet Sonata (1942), his first published and recorded work, undertaken by the great Broadway orchestrator Sid Ramin after the composer’s death.

The resulting “Sonata for Clarinet and Orchestra” (1994) now sounds curiously Copland-like thanks to Ramin’s spare work, but not particularly compelling. It does, however, provide a virtuoso opportunity, and principal clarinetist Burt Hara’s acrobatic flights did not disappoint.

That left Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), one of three works he wrote in the concert-hall form to which he was, arguably, temperamentally best suited. It’s three movements carry ponderous subtitles – “Prophecy,” “Profanation” and “Lamentation” – and the work as a whole clearly aspires to Bernstein’s hero Mahler, to the point of featuring a vocal soloist for the final movement. Vänskä led a sincere reading that once again displayed the orchestra to excellent advantage. There was plenty of appealing color in the second movement and some touching moments in the third, where mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer leant more raw power than ravishing tone to the Hebrew text.



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