Bernstein at 100: The Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood
Boston Symphony Orchestra et al. / various conductors
Soloists, Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Host: Audra McDonald
rec. live, Tanglewood, Massachusetts, USA, 25 August 2018
Bonus: Bernstein at Tanglewood, Video Greetings
Director: David Horn; Producers: Richard R. Schilling, John Walker
Filmed in high definition mastered from HD source
Subtitles: English, German, Korean, Japanese C MAJOR DVD 747608 [141 min.]
This grand celebration in honor of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary took place on his birthday at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer home and a venue dear to Lenny. The concert performance here was telecast on the Public Broadcasting System throughout the US at the end of December. It is indeed an occasion worth preserving and the powers that be did Bernstein proud with this production. I haven’t seen the Blu-ray, but it would be difficult to better the picture and sound on this DVD. The camera work is judicious, focusing for the most part on the performers and interspersed with a few cameos filmed earlier.
The concert begins off the bat with Andris Nelsons conducting the orchestra in Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. The orchestra per se, while largely the Boston Symphony, is joined by members of the New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Pacific Music Festival, and Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, musical organizations which with Bernstein had a personal relationship. The guest musicians comprise 14 string players from the orchestras cited above. Thus, basically what the viewer sees is the Boston Symphony. Nelsons is the engaging conductor we have come to expect and the orchestra seems to be on the same wave length. This is music the orchestra must have played too many times to count and there is a touch of the routine that does not lift the work quite out of the ordinary. Still, it is an effective opener. I doubt any conductor could make it more exciting, with the exception of the composer himself.
After the overture, host Audra McDonald comes on stage to introduce the concert and pay tribute to Bernstein and how much he has meant to generations of musicians and music lovers in general. As she notes, some of these admirers were very young when Lenny died and some not even born yet. She relates how important Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony were to Bernstein and there is a clip of his last concert with them, performing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony on August 19, 1990. This would be Bernstein’s very last concert.
Next is the second performance, violinist Midori playing the “Phaedrus” movement from Bernstein’s Serenade, accompanied by the orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach. If Midori, wearing a white dress decorated with red flowers, seems very serious, conductor Eschenbach is downright stone-faced. She begins with eyes closed, but later becomes somewhat more animated and opens her eyes. Overall, the account is business-like, but very well played.
The third work is the “Kaddish2” movement from the Symphony No. 3, beautifully sung by soprano Nadine Sierra. Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart accompanies her and he is more animated than Eschenbach in the earlier piece. He doesn’t use a baton here and just molds the orchestra to the music, which is performed with real feeling. It is only a pity that this selection was chosen instead of the much better “Lamentations” finale of Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony. All the same, the women’s chorus provides superb “commentary” and Sierra’s quiet singing is ravishing.
Following is the third Meditation from Mass that Bernstein arranged for Rostropovich and performed here by Kian Soltani, the young Persian/Austrian cellist and winner of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival’s 2017 Bernstein Award. Eschenbach, who himself won a similar award at the Pacific Music Festival, and the orchestra accompany. Soltani with his big, warm tone, performs with much expression. He really digs in during the fast music and shows great sensitivity in the slower, more romantic passages. Eschenbach actually smiles from time to time and seems more involved than he was in the Serenade movement. There is particularly good camera work, when it focuses on the bongos and other percussion. Eschenbach gives Soltani a deserved hug at the end of the performance, whereas all Midori received earlier was a handshake. Soltani would seem to have a very bright future.
After that performance, McDonald returns to comment on Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic debut, and the strong influence Serge Koussevitzky had on him. She notes the latter’s criticism of Lenny’s composing for Broadway, which leads into what will likely be remembered as the most exciting part of this centennial tribute: selections from West Side Story.
When Michael Tilson Thomas mounts the podium, the concert really comes to life. Not that the music-making earlier was less than musically satisfying, but the combination of a superb cast of singers and Tilson Thomas’s energetic and involved conducting brings the house down.
The West Side Story selections include the “Prologue,” “Jet Song”, “Maria,” “A boy like that—I have love,” and “Tonight” (Quintet). The vocalists, for the most part, are experienced Broadway singers. Outstanding among them is Tony Yazbeck as Tony, who has exactly the right voice quality for the part and the technique to carry it off. He is as good as his predecessors in the role and far better than the Josť Carreras travesty on Bernstein’s DG account. Jessica Vosk, as Anita, and Isobel Leonard, as Maria, are also excellent and believable in their parts, although Leonard perhaps is a bit more operatic in places than ideal. Anita and Maria’s duet, though, is absolutely gorgeous. The guys doing the Jets and the Sharks perfectly capture the spirit. When they all come together in the final number, “Tonight,” they are terrific in realizing the complex counterpoint. The acting, too, is not overdone, but very believable. The “cast” receives a standing ovation. Indeed, this is undoubtedly the highlight of the concert. These West Side Story selections represent the end of the Bernstein portion of the programme.
Not to be outdone, though, and in an entirely different mood and direction, Thomas Hampson takes the stage to perform one of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, “Der Schildwache Nachtlied.” Before his performance there is a cameo of Hampson telling of Bernstein’s impact on him. He sings this soldier’s song with his powerful rich voice, while his soft singing is a magical as ever. His vibrato on loud, held notes can intrude a little, but his stage presence is strong and his facial expression unaffected. Nelsons is also in his element here, clearly enjoying the piece. There is fine camera work on the orchestra’s soloists, including flute, oboe, and harp.
Audra McDonald once again returns to the stage to speak about Mahler with all his contradictions, something he had in common with Bernstein. She then turns to Copland as American pioneer and the fact that Bernstein and he shared an inextinguishable hunger for all that was “American.” This segues nicely to some words about John Williams and his movie scores, after which is shown a photo of Tanglewood’s Highwood Manor—a house that Bernstein claimed was haunted. This is the subject of Williams’ new composition, Highwood’s Ghost, which is played later in the concert.
First, though, Michael Tilson Thomas returns to conduct the Finale of Appalachian Spring. As he previously has done, Tilson Thomas chooses the music from the complete ballet rather than the more familiar suite. This would make sense if he were performing the whole ballet, but the last section of the suite with its Shaker tune would have been a better choice. As far as I know, Bernstein recorded just the suite. The Shaker tune being interrupted by a long stretch of sometimes quite dissonant music makes this excerpt seem unduly protracted. That said, Tilson Thomas and the Boston orchestra excel in music that seems like second nature to them.
John Williams composed Highwood’s Ghost at the request of Nelsons and cellist Yo-Yo Ma for the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in observation of the Bernstein Centennial. It is written for solo harp and cello and was premiered by the Tanglewood orchestra with harpist Jessica Zhou and cellist Ma on August 19, 2018 as part of an annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert. The same artists perform it here under the directorship of the composer. The work begins quietly and rather creepily in an atonal idiom. The harp enters before the solo cello and the music is ruminative before it becomes livelier and tonal. The orchestra later receives a more prominent role with interesting brass and percussion writing. Before long, though, the cello and harp start to meander when the orchestra joins in to liven up the proceedings. So it goes until it ends with a high, sustained note on the cello. The piece, though surely holding one’s attention, feels a bit long for its 15-minute duration. I have always felt that Williams’ forte is his music for film and his so-called “serious” works do not have the individual stamp that makes him such a fine composer. However, I can’t imagine better advocates for this work than these artists.
The concert concludes in grand style with the Finale of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. There is surely no better composer to celebrate Bernstein than Mahler, who more than anyone else, he brought to the public’s eye. My first exposure to Mahler came with Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on television where he illustrated his “lecture” with a performance of the Scherzo from this very symphony. Based on the performance here of the Finale, one wishes they had played the whole symphony. Of course, that was impossible given the circumstances of a concert lasting some two hours itself. Nadine Sierra and Susan Graham are the well-matched soloists. When the chorus enters with “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du” (“Rise again, yes, thou shalt rise again”), their hushed singing is breathtaking, though in a more recent Berlin Philharmonic performance under Nelsons that entrance was barely audible—indeed spine-tingling. Earlier, the off-stage horns, trumpets, and timpani are captured well by the cameras, as the musicians perform under trees on the Tanglewood grounds, and their coordination with the rest of the orchestra inside and their tuning are impeccable. Nelsons builds the movement as well as I have ever heard it, with exquisitely shaded dynamics and great power by both chorus and orchestra. He pulls out all the stops for the final chorale and brassy conclusion with its bells. It is truly majestic and receives the standing ovation one would have expected.
The only thing that could follow such a climax is an encore of music by Bernstein himself: “Somewhere” from West Side Story. The entire ensemble of singers with Audra McDonald leading the way, then joined by the other soloists, and even the conductors and other solo musicians, bring the house down. What a memorable way to end the celebration!
In addition to the concert, there are two bonus features. The first, entitled “Bernstein at Tanglewood,” includes John Williams, Seiji Ozawa, and Midori reminiscing about their experiences there with Bernstein. Lenny himself also speaks about his apprenticeship with Koussevitzky. Then Bernstein’s brother, Burton, relates how whenever Lenny would conduct at Tanglewood the sun would shine—even if the day had been cloudy before his appearance. The second bonus is a series of video greetings from Andris Nelsons, Lenny’s daughter Jamie, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yo-Yo Ma, Gustavo Dudamel, Marin Alsop, Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Williams, and Stephen Sondheim. The DVD includes a glossy booklet with photos, a list of the orchestra members, and an informative biographical sketch on Bernstein and shorter article on the concert’s music by Robert Kirzinger. This DVD is essential for all fans of Leonard Bernstein.
Concert Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Overture to Candide
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
“Phaedrus” from Serenade
Midori (violin); BSO/Christoph Eschenbach
“Kaddish 2” from Symphony No.3
Nadine Sierra (soprano); Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Meditation No. 3 from Mass
Kian Soltani (cello); BSO/Christoph Eschenbach
Selections from West Side Story
Isabel Leonard – Maria; Jessica Vosk – Anita; Tony Yazbeck – Tony; Clyde Alves – Riff;
DJ Petrosino – Bernardo; other male singers and members of Tanglewood Festival Chorus;
Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
BSO/Michael Tilson Thomas
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
“Der Schildwache Nachtlied” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990) Appalachian Spring: Finale
BSO/Michael Tilson Thomas
John WILLIAMS (b. 1932) Highwood’s Ghost, An Encounter for Harp, Cello, and Orchestra
Jessica Zhou (harp); Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Finale
Nadine Sierra (soprano); Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Encore: Leonard BERNSTEIN
“Somewhere” from West Side Story
Audra McDonald; Vocal Ensemble
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