Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
March 16, 2018

Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918. In this centenary year, there are celebrations of his life and music throughout the world. The first celebrations in Australia have been in Adelaide this weekend.

During a tour with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in August 1974, Bernstein – universally known as ‘Lenny’ – celebrated his 56th birthday in Adelaide with a birthday party thrown for him by Premier Don Dunstan. The ghosts of both thespians, Bernstein and Dunstan, must have hovered low over the Adelaide Festival Centre these past few days. Don wanted the AFC to host the best the world had to offer. Lenny and the Philharmonic were fairly early arrivals, performing here barely a year after the Centre had opened.

Bernstein on Stage! Photograph © Robyn Holmes

Forty-four years later, the Adelaide Festival has thrown another birthday party for that titan of music. Bernstein on Stage! was a three-hour birthday valentine to the man who changed the American musical for all time. Repeated over two nights in the Festival Centre, it was the last major musical event in an Adelaide Festival that has restored concert music and opera to the core of its festival program.

Both Don and Lenny would have smiled over Bernstein on Stage!. The stage was as crammed as a New York subway at peak hour: the 76-member Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the 26-member Adelaide Chamber Singers, a quartet of international soloists and a forest of microphones and cables.

The master chef on this occasion was John Mauceri, the 72-year-old American maestro who is surely the leading Bernstein authority in the world today. (Read Limelight’s interview with him here). Their association began in 1971 at Tanglewood where Mauceri was a conducting student. It proceeded for the next 18 years, until Bernstein’s death in October 1990. During that time, Mauceri was first his assistant, then his editor, then, more often than not, conductor of his music. “It was I who rehearsed and performed his music for him while he was present,” Mauceri explained in the printed program. This was when Lenny chose “not to be the person standing before the orchestra and ‘doing all the work’”.

In Lenny’s centennial year, Mauceri finds himself in “a rather unique position” when it comes to performing his mentor’s music. Over a quarter-century, there was rarely a piece he did not learn first-hand from him. Mauceri’s edits are everywhere to be found in the printed scores, along with a wealth of anecdotes and stories attached to each piece.

And yet, for all this dedication and scholarship, what emerged was a truly entertaining evening, hosted by an urbane and unassuming persona who did not need to assert his authority over his subject matter. In effect, Bernstein on Stage! was a curated journey through the decades of Bernstein’s considerable Broadway output. Delivered in chronological order, it drew on excerpts – some well-known, many less so – from eight shows, encompassing the 34 years from 1942 to 1976.

To open, the orchestra launched into Big Stuff, a song from Lenny’s first ballet, Fancy Free (1944), but, sadly, due to a computer playback glitch, without the recorded voice of Billie Holiday. Undeterred, Mauceri moved into On the Town, the musical that was spawned by Fancy Free. This provided the platform for the four sassy soloists to strut their stuff. Then, three sections of the one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti (1952) a somewhat double-edged reflection on life in suburbia. The first half ended with four exuberant moments from the musical Wonderful Town (1953), with that signature clarion call, “New York! New York!” soaring over proceedings.

The second half contained more familiar material, particularly three moments from West Side Story (1957); Maria and Tonight could almost have been audience sing-alongs. Five movements of my favourite piece, the mini-opera Candide (1956 to the present day!), confirmed just how Lenny could pull at the heart-strings. In an era when America is set to build walls, that line in the finale, “We’ll build out home and Make our garden grow” could not have been more poignant or pointed. At that moment, I began to cry.

A short excerpt from the gargantuan Mass (1971), which Adelaide had seen at the 2012 Festival, moved into music which was unfamiliar to almost everyone. In celebration of the American Bicentennial, Lenny and the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner collaborated on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), a musical ‘biography’ of the White House itself. The three sections heard in this program – a Stravinskian Prelude, a spoof colonial march and another stirring finale, “To Make Us Proud” – showed that this strangely unsettling work contains some deal of music which can be re-visited with some real pride, some 40 years after its appearance. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, several assassinations and a corrupt presidency, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could hardly lift the American population to celebrate their bicentennial; it closed after a mere seven performances. The performances here in Adelaide this weekend were most likely the first time this music has been heard in this country.

As an epilogue to the concert, the performers looked back to On the Town to give a valedictory salute with that most memorable Lenny tune, Some Other Time. Here, the spectral voices of Eileen Farrell and Lenny himself – a gravel-basso, the product of decades of cigarette-smoking – broke into the live performance. The effect was stunning, and elicited searches for fresh handkerchiefs.

Throughout the evening, the orchestra sparkled and glistened with gay abandon. I am constantly amazed at the resourceful adaptability of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra: the modernist Euro-palette of Brett Dean’s Hamlet one week, and Broadway pizzazz the next. At the rear of the Orchestra, the Adelaide Chamber Singers became another facet of orchestration, a tribute to their well-rehearsed blend and demeanour.

Overall, the four lead singers were sheer delight. The two Londoners – mezzo-soprano Kim Criswell and bass-baritone Rodney Earl Clarke – displayed that typical American showbiz ‘we-can-sing-and-act-anything’ factor that was a sheer knockout.

The young Australian tenor Luke Kennedy will learn much from the experience of working with such engaging professionals. For all this American wattage, the vocal star of the show would have to be the Australian soprano Lorina Gore. At the beginning of the Festival, a mere two weekends ago, we saw her gyrating and shrieking on this very same stage as Ophelia in Hamlet, and now she could have walked straight out of 42nd Street. Is there nothing this singer can not do?

Presiding over everything was the understated yet near-magisterial presence of Mauceri. Unfussed and without any of the histrionics of (ahem) other American maestri, Mauceri was a model of cool and unflappable calm. With his thumbnail portraits of each Broadway show, he had the Orchestra, and the audience, hanging on his every word, eating out of his hand.

Still, it would have helped, had the producers arranged for a sheet or even the entire program to be distributed free-of-charge, as so often happens in other instances. Then, the audience would have been able to savour Gordon Williams’s insightful, on-the-spot observations in his always excellent program notes.

The one other quibble I have with this otherwise splendid presentation relates to sound ‘enhancement’. Overall, the music sounded over-amplified, condensing the orchestral colours into a kind of metallic shell. Does a well-known concert piece like the Candide overture really need sound enhancement? From time to time, the quartet benefited from a little extra ‘oompf’, but not for the entire program, surely. Perhaps a conductor’s assistant needed to sit at the mixing desk to ensure that the quality of the sound, and not just its presence, is not lost. But most in the audience hardly noticed; all were well disposed to the enterprise, we did not to protest too volubly.

There will be Bernstein a-plenty in Australia these coming months. Two further concerts in Adelaide, three in Sydney (in May), three in Melbourne (August) and concert performances of Candide in Sydney in late August. There will be countless radio and television programs, no doubt, and magazine articles, including one from the present writer in the May issue of Limelight.

Already, it seems that 2018 is the Year of Lenny. There will be stories and memories from many of us who met and knew him, and even more from those who didn’t. Some of our yarns are fit for print, most are best left for late-night recollections.

As the audience spilled out into the balmy Adelaide night, strains of Bernstein could be heard along the nearby streets and parklands. Arnold Schoenberg once said he wanted audiences to sing and hum his tunes – if they could find any.

Leonard Bernstein had the capacity to weld the most wonderful tunes into our brains. This concert was an extraordinary reminder of his skill, his craft and his humanity. It will live long in the memory and history of the Adelaide Festival.

There is another performance of Bernstein on Stage! tonight at 7pm


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