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Festival review: Bernstein on Stage!

Adelaide Festival

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is joining orchestras all over the world to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein – and its first concert on that theme this year demonstrated the capacity for “Lenny” to both confound and delight audiences.

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Bernstein on Stage!, conducted and presented by American maestro John Mauceri, provided a chronological parade of Bernstein’s Broadway repertoire – from the obscure to the very well-known.

For Mauceri, who worked extensively with Bernstein over the two decades before his death, this was clearly an opportunity to educate audiences about the scope of Bernstein’s work. In Mauceri’s words, the “‘I can do anything’ Lenny of the early 1940s will slowly morph into the adult in the room”.

A handful of people at Friday’s performance didn’t experience the transformation – they left at the interval, after clearly failing to connect with music from On the Town, the relatively obscure domestic opera Trouble in Tahiti, and the flouncy “small-town kids in the big city” vibe of What a Wonderful Town.

In true Adelaide form, a smattering of the vast majority who stayed the distance offered a standing ovation at the end of the second half, which included blockbuster tunes from West Side Story and Candide!, with a welcome sideways journey to Mass.

The ASO, backed by the Adelaide Chamber Singers, ably anchored the performance of these lush and, often, complex tunes, with four soloists upfront – soprano Lorina Gore, mezzo-soprano Kim Criswell, bass-baritone Rodney Earl Clarke and tenor Luke Kennedy.

Friday’s show began unfortunately – with a technical glitch meaning we didn’t get to hear Billie Holiday performing one of Bernstein’s earliest songs, which was meant to bookend another historic recording at the end of the show.

After the bouncy overture to On the Town, the singers took us through a bracket that finished with the 1944 musical’s big hit – “New York, New York”. A section from Trouble in Tahiti was difficult to access, perhaps because the subtle domestic theme and intricate, jazz-influenced operatic score is so anchored in a social and musical time and place.

Then we were back in flouncy Broadway territory, with Gore and Criswell providing a delightful and funny performance of “Ohio” and all four soloists performing the patter and character of the awkward “Conversation Piece”, about a four-way date that descends into banality.

The show took off after the interval, with a selection from Candide! – an operetta based on an 18th-century novel by Voltaire.

Gore demonstrated her sparkling soprano voice in “Glitter and be Gay”, Criswell her musical theatre timing in “I am Easily Assimilated”, before the whole ensemble – and the Chamber Singers – make a splendid and moving fist of the soaring finale, “Make Our Garden Grow”.

Australian Kennedy took centre stage in the surprisingly brief list of selections from Bernstein’s biggest and most familiar show – West Side Story – with a sensitively performed version of “Maria” and lovely duet with Gore on “Tonight”. (As if we needed to be reminded, but Sondheim’s lyrics really are a gift to a performer.)

Earl Clarke’s rich voice tackled “Simple Song” from Mass, the second performance of the song at this festival (after a much more reflective reading from Anne Sofie von Otter at the Town Hall the previous week).

Bernstein’s 1970s Broadway flop, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, offered another challenge to the audience, with the fascinating prelude seeing the orchestra playing in two keys simultaneously, the rousing but bizarre “President Jefferson March”, and a call to true patriotism, “To Make Us Proud” finishing that bracket.

If that left the audience again spinning, the epilogue was simply lovely – the poignant “Some Other Time” from On the Town, with a 1980s recording of Bernstein himself interspersed seamlessly with the live musicians, his deep voice sounding all the world like late-career Leonard Cohen.

What to make of this? I learned a lot about Bernstein – his long-term commitment to social inclusion, his bowerbird-like appreciation of popular music, and how his orchestral career constantly kept him from composing.

The concert, while it had its fine and transcendent moments, had a feeling of being a little underprepared at times, perhaps a consequence of tackling a repertoire so wide and traversing some less-travelled corners of Bernstein’s sweeping musical universe.

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