Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) presented the first of four concert programs planned for the ensemble’s 106th season as an extended celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s birth centennial. (Bernstein’s 100th birthday will be on August 25, 2018.) The program consisted of four selections, two of which were products of post hoc orchestral arrangement, whose years of composition ranged from 1949 to 1988. Bernstein’s approaches to composition were almost as diverse as the many disciplines in which he chose to practice. Indeed, it is not difficult to confuse him with the hero of James Thurber’s cowboy story, who jumps on his horse and rides off madly in all directions. From that point of view, four compositions hardly do justice to the full breadth of Bernstein’s imagination; but MTT’s choices certainly offered a taste of just how extensive that scope was.
Nevertheless, one could also say that there was a unifying theme, which was Bernstein’s own distinctive voice. I almost wrote “distinctive American voice” in that last sentence, thinking primarily of the extent to which Bernstein distinguished himself from all those other American composers who went to Paris to learn how to write American music from Nadia Boulanger. However, Bernstein was a New Yorker through and through, even if all of his initial educational years, all the way up to his graduation from Harvard University, took place in Massachusetts; and we all know that thoughts about what constitutes “American” start changing even after one crosses the Hudson River!
The distinction of Bernstein’s voice has much to do with the fact that he was as comfortable in the worlds of jazz and Broadway musicals as he was in the company of the New York Philharmonic, with whom he made his conducting debut and subsequently served as Music Director from 1957 to 1969. It thus seemed appropriate for MTT to begin his program with the 1949 “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs,” written for Woody Herman’s jazz band (known as “The Herd”), and concluded with the symphonic suite of dances from the 1957 musical West Side Story. The former apotheosizes the wild abandon that was gradually taking over jazz groups, many of which had previously been expected merely to provide music for dancing, after the rise of be-bop practices. The latter surveys the breadth of character types in the musical and their sharply contrasting emotional dispositions.
“Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” was the edgier of these two selections. During the pre-concert talk MTT observed that the only regret anyone had about this music was that it was only seven minutes long. The program notes by James Keller describe it as having “three continuous portions” (corresponding to the nouns in the title); but the truth is that, once this music is in full steam, all three of those portions are coexisting and challenging each other with the vigor of the best be-bop improvisers. The only down-side was that the program book never bothered to name the five saxophonists (two altos, two tenors, one baritone) against whom Principal Clarinet Carey Bell (whose new suggestion of a goatee seemed to fit right into the be-bop spirit) wailed out a series of sharp-edged solo riffs for which that last section is named.
Bernstein himself planned out the structure of the West Side Story suite; but the orchestration was then realized by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, both of whom were prodigiously active in both New York and Hollywood. (Kostal was responsible for the soundtrack of the West Side Story film.) The suite was not planned as an outline of the narrative. Instead it tended to focus on those sections that were conceived primarily for Jerome Robbins’ choreography. From that point of view, the music stands very well on its own, perhaps even better for having been freed of texts that are beginning to sound more than a little painfully dated. MTT’s decision to conclude with this suite was a judicious one, since it was a prime example of Bernstein’s ability to bring down the house with just the right well-honed musical climax gestures.
The central portion of the program involved vocal selections. The 1966 “Chichester Psalms” was performed before the intermission, which was then followed by the 1988 song cycle Arias and Barcarolles. These tended to be the weaker portions of the evening. One has to admire Bernstein’s chutzpah in choosing Hebrew as the language for the Psalm excerpts that were written to be sung in Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, but the evidence suggests that the composer’s command of Latin was far stronger than his knowledge of Hebrew! Ultimately, the music amounts to hanging notes on syllables; and those notes that have been flatted for the sake of a jazzier rhetoric emerge as the most memorable moments. (Many of those moments were provided last night by boy soprano Nicholas Hu, who seemed more comfortable with the words than did the SFS Chorus.)
Arias and Barcarolles, on the other hand, is basically an ego display. Almost all of the words are by Bernstein himself, a few come from a story his mother used to tell, and one of the songs is in Yiddish. Ultimately, the words mattered less than their delightfully arch delivery by both mezzo Isabel Leonard and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. The original accompaniment for these songs was just four hands on a single keyboard. As seems to be well known by now, the original four hands belonged to Bernstein and MTT.
Bruce Coughlin created an orchestral version in 1993 which does not even try to suggest how the music sounded coming from a piano. MTT gave this account a spirited reading that was perfectly matched to Leonard’s and McKinny’s sassy deliveries. They were deftly matched in “Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight” by the jive-talk exchanges by actors Matt Herrero and Jack O’Reilly in the roles of that couple’s unruly children. Ultimately, this cycle served up Bernstein at his most sentimental. As might be guessed, that sentiment would, from time to time, teeter on the brink of excess; but MTT was always there to keep it from going over the edge.