Thursday, April 5, 2018

Bernstein and Context at the Wilsey Center

Last night The Taube Atrium Theater of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera hosted the final program in the 35th anniversary season of the Schwabacher Recital Series. Entitled Bernstein & Friends, the program featured a quartet of vocalists, all of whom were 2018 Adler Fellows: soprano Natalie Image, mezzo Ashley Dixon, tenor Amitai Pati, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell. They were accompanied at the piano by Kevin Murphy and also, for a single selection, cellist Emil Miland.

Christian Pursell accompanied by Emil Miland and Kevin Murphy with Natalie Image and Amitai Pati seated (courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

One might question the word choice for the title, since Gustav Mahler died before Leonard Bernstein was born. Bernstein & Context might have been a bit more appropriate, since the three composers on the program that were not Bernstein himself were all sources of influence. The one close friend was Aaron Copland; and there is a certain poignancy to the fact that Bernstein and Copland both died in the same year, 1990, as if their deaths were drawing the curtain on their shared approach to bringing a particularly bold Americanism to the making of music during the twentieth century.

While Copland may have “learned to write American music” from Nadia Boulanger (in Paris), the origins of a more rough-hewn American boldness could be found in Charles Ives, who predated Bernstein and Copland by half a century. Ives was unable to attend the world premiere of his second symphony, at which Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1951. However, the story goes that Ives listening to a subsequent Bernstein performance on the radio and was apparently delighted. Nevertheless, the two men probably never met. Bernstein’s relation with Ives was one of influence, as was his relation with Mahler.

Nevertheless, the selections by Mahler, Ives, and Copland last night did little to suggest what those influences might have been. Where Bernstein’s staged works were concerned, one got the impression that the strongest influences came from his text sources, the poet Richard Wilbur for Candide and Stephen Sondheim for West Side Story. Bernstein wrote his own libretto for Trouble in Tahiti; but, in that case, it seemed as if he was picking up his texts from the argot of mass media.

The selections from these shows were definitely the high point of the evening, particularly with Aria Umezawa’s minimal staging for “What A Movie!” from Trouble in Tahiti, sung by Dixon with the other vocalists providing the “Greek chorus.” In contrast both Pati, singing “Maria,” and Image, singing “I Feel Pretty,” made a case for the fact that this music can resonate more intense feelings in a chamber setting removed from the glitz of full-out staging. Then, of course, “Make Our Garden Grow” is one of those sure-fire finale pieces and may well be Bernstein’s most successful effort to home in on the true essence of kvell.

The “art song” selections, on the other hand, were decidedly weaker. There was clearly an impressive diversity in Bernstein’s approaches to choosing texts; but, more often than not, the relationship between words and music tended to feel labored, no matter how much discipline the vocalists put into shaping their phrases. For better or worse, Aaron Copland’s settings of the poems of Emily Dickinson, two of which were sung by Image and Dixon, respectively, set a very high bar for a relationship between music and text that encompasses syntax, semantics, and rhetoric. Bernstein could clear that bar in staged settings but not in the more detached environment of the recital hall. Indeed, any of Copland’s virtues came across as American complements to the Mahler songs presented by Image, Pursell, and Dixon, again respectively.

On the other hand the coarser Americanisms emerged in Pursell’s account of Ives’ “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.” This was Ives at his most raucous, imposing wild demands on both vocalist and pianist. Murphy provided a few introductory remarks, commenting on Ives’ incorporating hymn tunes into his thematic lexicon. Sadly, he neglected to mention that the hymn that pervades the entire song was Lowell Mason’s setting of William Cowper’s hymn, “There is a fountain filled with blood,” whose words probably continue to raise eyebrows among serious church-goers. For that matter Murphy also did not mention who Booth was: He was the founder of the Salvation Army in 1878 and was its first General! Nevertheless, even in the absence of that context, last night’s performance was about as full-barreled an account of Ives as one would be likely to get, at least in a recital setting.

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