It was another big weekend for Leonard Bernstein in Washington. Every institution and ensemble in town has commemorated the centennial of the composer-conductor-polymath this season. This weekend, it was the turn of the Library of Congress, the Phillips Collection, Washington Performing Arts (which presented Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis), the Cathedral Choral Society and the Washington National Opera, which offered its annual gala (no longer called a ball) under the banner of Bernstein on Sunday night. That meant it was also a big weekend for Jamie Bernstein, who in her role as a professional composer’s daughter appeared at least three of these events.
The Library of Congress recital on Friday was a highlight of an intense Bernstein weekend at the library, followed by a Saturday marathon of lectures and performances, highlighting the library’s other major contribution to the centennial: putting some 3,700 items from its vast Bernstein collection online. Michael Barrett, Bernstein’s longtime amanuensis, was curator, host and accompanist, very much in the spirit of the organization he co-founded, the New York Festival of Song, which offered its own Bernstein tribute at Wolf Trap in February. That NYFOS recital was one of the best Bernstein concerts I’ve seen this year, and this Library of Congress performance was one of the others.
Barrett did a deep dive, showing aspects of Bernstein you may not know (including five unpublished songs from the library’s collection); focusing on three stage works, “Trouble in Tahiti,” “A Quiet Place,” and “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”; and finishing with a set of the greatest hits from “West Side Story” and “Candide” for good measure. Some of the pieces spotlighted Bernstein the man — a lullaby for his about-to-be-born first grandchild; a piano piece he wrote for the wedding of his longtime collaborator, Adolph Green. Others brought to light less-known parts of the oeuvre. All I really knew of “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Bernstein’s most resounding flop, were the songs “Take Care of This House” and “To Make Us Proud;” they were both present here, but so were other excerpts like “Lud’s Wedding,” which I enjoyed and which made me curious to explore the rest of the score.
One reason you don’t often hear “Lud’s Wedding” is that it’s very hard to sing; but the tenor Martin Luther Clark and the mezzo Amanda Lynn Bottoms made it sound almost easy. Singing, of course, is the determining factor in the success of such a recital, and it certainly fueled this one. Julia Bullock, who wowed me with a solo recital here two weeks ago, was equally authoritative and luminous here; and she was matched by Bottoms, whose voice is warm and full where Bullock’s is silvery, and who met her emotional intensity in a powerful “A Boy Like That.” Amy Owens’s soprano was slightly shrill, but she was marvelous in the show-stealer “Glitter and Be Gay,” cracking up not only the audience, but the other singers on stage, so that they had to take a break before finishing with Bullock’s moving “Somewhere.”
The WNO gala was conceived entirely differently, as a colorful large-scale pageant. So it was striking that fully half of the numbers on the program were also on Friday’s (much longer) Library of Congress concert. This speaks to WNO’s attempt to offer something a bit different, as well as to its relying on young singers — the artists of the Domingo-Cafritz program did a lot of the heavy lifting, starting with a slapstick quintet from “On the Town,” continuing through a solo turn by soprano Madison Leonard, who recently was a top winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and ending as the ensemble of “To Make Us Proud” from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” (also featured at the Library of Congress). In that song, they rescued the featured talent from embarrassment; Nathan Gunn, the evening’s emcee, sounded woefully underrehearsed when it came to the singing part.
Underrehearsal isn’t always a bad thing. Tituss Burgess, one of the evening’s scheduled highlights, took ill at the last minute, and Alek Shrader, the star of WNO’s “Candide,” came in to sing “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story,” sounding natural and easy and absolutely convincing; I’d be happy to hear him do the whole part.
The other two star attractions came from different worlds. Isabel Leonard, Rosina in WNO’s just-ended “Barber of Seville,” offers an exquisite package, beautiful and polished and accurate both of voice and of person, but failed to move me at all in either “Take Care of This House” or “Somewhere.” The biggest star was Patti LuPone, who protested that she’s not an opera singer before launching into a comic take on “A Boy Like That” in which she took both roles, a kind of bathroom-mirror moment writ large onstage. She’s not an opera singer, true, but she is a crack Broadway performer, and she undersold herself in both this and in “Some Other Time” from “On the Town,” in which her whiskery voice, normally perfect for this song, sounded rough against the backup chorus of the Washington National Opera Chorus.
John DeMain, in the pit, strove to infuse the proceedings with energy, and a slide show during the overture (from “On the Town”) documented Bernstein’s life and his particular relationship with the Kennedy Center, which opened with the world premiere of his “Mass” in 1971. It was all amiable enough, and raised, according to the remarks by Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubinstein during the concert, more than a million dollars for the opera. But to someone who had heard Friday’s performance, it came up short.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to soprano Amy Owens as Amanda Owens.