There were six Leonard Bernstein tribute concerts in a little more than two weeks at the start of this month. This year, that may be par for the course. The Leonard Bernstein Foundation (more austere and controlling than the man himself ever was) has a website with pages of listings of concerts honoring the centennial around the world, not a few of them featuring his three children; and if you missed these, you’ll have other chances in the months ahead (like “Candide” at the Washington National Opera in May). What emerged from this concentration was not so much a distillation of Bernstein the man as the way that the music world clings to him. Often, the concerts were as much a reflection of the groups that performed them as they were of the composer.
One of the biggest challenges that emerged over the two-plus weeks (from the New York Festival of Song’s recital at the Wolf Trap Barns on Feb. 2 to Washington Performing Arts’ tribute, with Jamie Bernstein and the U. S. Air Force Band, on Sunday) was the fact that Bernstein didn’t write much small-scale music: Chamber-music groups have a hard time pulling together a concert. I heard the clarinet sonata 2½ times (the Air Force Band played an arrangement of the second movement), because that was one of the few chamber pieces Bernstein completed. As a result, the two chamber groups that performed in this period, the Curtis Institute of Music’s touring arm on Feb. 11 and the 21st Century Consort on Saturday, had to “pad,” presenting Bernstein in the context of other composers’ work.
Curtis, one of the leading bastions of high-classical pedagogy, went with Copland (the Sextet, all clean lines and vivid energy that did reflect Bernstein’s spirit) and Gershwin (the “Lullaby” for string quartet, a lilting, swaying, gentle and altogether lovely thing), and showed for both an affinity that they couldn’t quite manage in the actual works by Bernstein, although David Shifrin was elegant in the clarinet sonata.
Not surprisingly, the 21st Century Consort did them one better; this group reliably offers some of the best and most interesting programming in Washington. It paired Bernstein (the clarinet sonata and the jazzy “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs”) with a major work by his friend Lukas Foss, “Time Cycle” (with the soprano Alice Teyssier as a compelling soloist); his predecessor Charles Ives (“The Unanswered Question”) paired with Ned Rorem’s “The Unquestioned Answer,” and a new work by the composer Andrea Clearfield, called “A Space Between,” which had four string players and a percussionist repeating bits of a Gertrude Stein text as their instruments sparkled out little dynamic motifs. Now that’s a nice program; and the playing did it full justice.
The Kennedy Center offered two more-direct spotlights on the composer. The Fortas Chamber Music Concerts recital on Feb. 6, though narrated well-meaningly by Alexander Bernstein, was a bust due to the inexplicable hiring of the mezzo Carla Dirlikov Canales, who gave a student-level recital, strong on big, eager, anodyne hand gestures but weak on details like the correct pitches.
And then, of course, there was “West Side Story” on Valentine’s Day: the complete score, and some of the dialogue, presented by the NSO Pops in an energetic semi-staging by Francesca Zambello that jarringly combined Broadway stars (like the lovely Solea Pfeiffer as Maria) with operatic singers from the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz program.
For all of Zambello’s efforts to enliven it, the whole thing was encased in spectacle, the orchestra playing largely but without the gritty zip that the music calls for, and the Broadway singers somewhat at a loss when it came to approaching Bernstein’s straightforward, singing vocal lines, slurring and blurring and huskily breathing on them as if they needed some kind of extra effort to make them go.
In “Maria” Corey Cott, as Tony, resorted to worrying his long notes like a dog, shaking his head back and forth while trying to hold on to them. The dialogue, meanwhile, was pared away to such a degree that the ending was telescoped beyond dramatic comprehensibility: it wasn’t clear why Tony was shot, or who shot him. But of course the audience loved it, because everybody loves “West Side Story”; you can do almost anything to it and those songs will still prevail, even in this forgettable presentation.
Here’s the thing: “West Side Story” is great, but it doesn’t need to always be the final word on Leonard Bernstein. I felt I got to know both the man and the composer the best at the New York Festival of Song program that kicked off this Bernstein focus. NYFOS was founded somewhat under Bernstein’s aegis, performing and recording the composer’s final work, “Arias and Barcarolles,” and winning a Grammy for it, and the insight that its polymathic and ever-engaging co-director Steven Blier brought to this ungainly, self-conscious work — there’s one vein of Bernstein’s output that I refer to as the composer’s “toe-curling mode” for its awkward fumblings at some kind of profundity — was illuminating. The evening’s two singers, Rebecca Jo Loeb and Joshua Jeremiah, were also excellent, following “Arias and Barcarolles” with a wide assortment of songs from throughout the composer’s oeuvre, from early musicals “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town” through to “Mass” and “Songfest”; and Blier’s commentary was supported by words from Michael Barrett, who didn’t get to say all that much about the years he spent as Bernstein’s protege. The encore, “Some Other Time” from “On the Town,” was sung as a duet with a tang of bittersweet nostalgia that seemed to presage much of Bernstein’s subsequent work in its knowing, worldly, and yet naive ache.
The other greatest illumination these two weeks about this man hailed as a quintessentially American composer was the performance by that most quintessentially American of ensembles, the military band. As music-lovers know, the elite military bands are made up of formidable musicians. But there are two extra factors I failed to anticipate that made them so particularly excellent as Bernstein players: they are fabulous communicators who are used to performing music for functions as well as concerts, very much in Bernstein’s spirit, and they regularly play in a wide range of styles, so they are far more comfortable with Bernstein’s crazy-quilt of references than, say, the more buttoned-up Curtis musicians.
The U. S. Air Force Band’s concert opened with a reading of the “Candide” overture that put a huge smile on my face, and marked the start of a program that was at the very highest musical level and had Bernstein’s idiom down better than perhaps I’ve ever heard it. “What a band!” enthused Jamie Bernstein, and amid her scripted remarks, it felt completely sincere. Having a full orchestra also enabled a wider cross section of Bernstein: We got “Fancy Free” as well as dances from “On the Town,” and a movement of the “Serenade,” as well as the obligatory “West Side Story.” Wholly gratuitously, Jamie turned the last two selections into a kind of children’s concert, holding up a “Mambo!” sign so the audience would know when to yell — though perhaps that was appropriate to the spirit of a man she described as having “the energy of a preschooler in a playground,” who left exuberance and chaos in his wake and who, even in his centennial year, clearly never quite grew up.