Friday night's National Symphony Orchestra program at Wolf Trap had two major attractions: the Broadway music of Leonard Bernstein (which seems destined for more longevity than most of his "serious" music) and seven young singers from this summer's Wolf Trap Opera Company who, being young and American, are naturally as comfortable with Broadway tunes as they are singing the operatic music of Mozart or Stravinsky. Bernstein's music allowed them to display both sides of their talent: Material from "Candide" and "West Side Story" responded well to operatic vocal styles, and music from "Wonderful Town" and "On the Town" was pure Broadway from the golden age when the music was more interesting than the stage machinery.
Bernstein chose operatic voices (Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos, Jose Carreras) when he conducted his own recording of "West Side Story" in 1984. The choice was ridiculed by some critics who found it pretentious, but the resulting recording has stood the test of time. Operatic quality and a fresh interpretation by the three female singers (sopranos Alexandra Deshorties and Cynthia Watters and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash) made "America" the vocal highlight of the evening, not only well-sung but acted with wit and spontaneity. The "Jet Song," less stylistically challenging, did not allow the men (tenors Nathan Granner and Justin Vickers and baritones Daniel Belcher and John Marcus Bindel) to exercise their operatic skills. They seemed to be imitating the movie soundtrack and doing a pretty good job of it.
The least familiar item on the program was "Dream With Me," which was dropped from the score of Bernstein's relatively unfamiliar "Peter Pan," perhaps because it did not fit the plot but more likely because it did not meet Bernstein's standards. Watters struggled valiantly to make it interesting, but was much more successful (in partnership with Belcher) in the hilarious duet "Come Up to My Place" from "On the Town." The same show gave Bindel a chance to shine in the haunting "Lonely Town" and Shammash and Granner in the comically erotic "Carried Away."
The program, conducted by Bernstein's longtime associate Michael Barrett, opened with a suite from "Candide" arranged by Charlie Harmon. It has more of the show's tunes than the familiar overture but a lot less sparkle, contrast and dramatic impact. These qualities were all highly evident in Bernstein's arrangement of the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story," played by the National Symphony Orchestra with color and vitality.