By ROBERT D. THOMAS
New West Symphony and others; John Mauceri, conductor>
Valley Performing Arts Center; Northridge
Next performances: Tonight (November 18) at 8 p.m., Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
November 19 at 2 p.m., Oxnard Performing Arts Center
Is it possible to have too much of Leonard Bernstein’s music on a single program? A large crowd last night at Cal State Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center — aka the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts or “the Soraya” for short — got a chance to consider that question when they heard a program entirely of Lenny’s music that was two years in the making by conductor John Mauceri and VPAC Executive Director Thor Steingraber.
Part way through the multi-year celebration of Bernstein’s birth centennial and several things have become apparent about how we are treating the composer-conductor-educator-raconteur-etc.
There have been plenty of duplication of some of Bernstein’s pieces but his three symphonies are not showing up on local programs (although next summer’s Hollywood Bowl programs, to be announced next February might change that).
However, no one — until this weekend — has programmed an entire concert of Bernstein’s music (technically the Los Angeles Philharmonic will also have an entire program of Bernstein when Gustavo Dudamel leads a performance of the composer’s Mass on Feb. 1, 2, 3 and 4).
However, last night’s program was unique — in brief pre-performance remarks Steingraber said he believed this was the only program in the world that would include music from all eight of Bernstein’s theatrical pieces.
The program was a natural for Mauceri to spearhead since Bernstein was one of his mentors and close friends. He is also someone whose skill set (minus composition) is remarkably similar to Bernstein, particularly in his winsome way of producing deft commentary about a program.
Mauceri enlisted the help of 130 musicians on stage: the New West Symphony, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Women of Areté Vocal Ensemble and California Lutheran University Choir, and a quarter of soloists. He also inserted recordings of Billie Holliday, Eileen Farrell and Bernstein himself — playing the piano and singing — into the beginning and encore pieces on the program.
The concert showed off Bernstein at his best and worst in terms of composition. Three of his works — On the Town, Wonderful Town and West Side Story — were certifiable hits (and in the case of WSS, a mega-hit). Two — Trouble in Tahiti and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — were all-world flops and two — Candide and Mass — continue to have their adherents and detractors.
Nonetheless, even the least successful of Bernstein’s compositions have music that is worth hearing, even though it made for a lengthy program, running a shade over 2½ hours in length. It could have been longer. As Mauceri pointed out during one of his typically erudite comments, Bernstein’s duties as New York Philharmonic music director precluded him from writing any stage shows from West Side Story in 1956 to Mass in 1971 (he did find time to write his Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish), Chichester Psalms and other instrumental pieces).
Mauceri elected to perform selections from the eight theatrical pieces in chronological order, which meant that the post-intermission portion had three of Bernstein’s most-recognizable pieces, and placed Candide — which would have made a great conclusion — at the beginning of the second act (as it were).
However, programming the works in chronological order allowed patrons to experience how Bernstein’s compositional style evolved from his original piece, the music to a Jerome Robbins ballet entitled Fancy Free, to his final two shows, Mass and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Bernstein’s writing often reflected the music of the era in which he wrote. Like most great composers, he borrowed liberally from his earlier works and wasn’t afraid to recycle pieces later on. Among other things, Mauceri noted that One Hand, One Heart was originally conceived for Candide but ended up in West Side Story (Bernstein wrote both at the same time).
Mauceri conducted the program expertly, although his tempos for Mambo from WSS seemed unusually pedestrian. The New West Symphony handled its parts of the program with stylish finesse (it’s not easy to perform a program made up of snippets from eight works). The choral ensembles delivered their parts mostly with panache (although being placed in the back of the stage gave the occasional impression that they were singing from downtown Los Angeles).
Each of the four soloists had their moment to shine. Baritone Davis Gaines was wistfully soulful in Lonely Town from On the Town and delivered Simple Song from Mass with a gentle style that belied the impossible range Bernstein used when he wrote the character of the Celebrant.
Tenor Casey Candebat and Soprano Célena Shafer soared through Tonight from WSS, and Shafer brought down the house with her rendition of Glitter and be Gay from Candide.
Mezzo-soprano Susanna Guzmán was hilarious in I Can Cook, Too from On the Town and What a Movie from Trouble in Tahiti.
The program repeats tonight in Thousand Oaks and Sunday afternoon in Oxnard on the New West Symphony’s subscription series.
• Coinciding with the programs comes the release of Mauceri’s new book, Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting, which is available in hardback and electronic editions.
• Information on the L.A. Phil performances of Mass is HERE.
• Overlapping the L.A. Phil performances, LA Opera is producing Candide January 27, Feb. 3, 8, 11 and 15. James Conlon conducts; Francesca Zambello directs. Details HERE.