The Spirit of Leonard Bernstein Arouses The Britt Pavilion on Britt Classical Festival’s Fifth Night
– by Lee Greene
On Sunday evening, August 9, the Britt Festivals presented the fifth concert of the 2015 Classical Season and for the third time this weekend, the program departed from the traditional menu of past seasons of mainly standard 18th and 19th century European works from the establishment classical repertoire. The August 9 concert was billed as a “Symphony Pops” concert, but it was really a night of all compositions by 20th century musical phenom, Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990). Bernstein was unlike any composer who came before him. Music critic Donal Henahan described him as “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” [The New York Times, Leonard Bernstein, 72, Music’s Monarch, Dies, Donal Henahan, October 15, 1990] Bernstein was one of the first world-acclaimed classical conductors to have been born and educated in the United States. [Wikipedia, Leonard Bernstein, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Bernstein] But he was more than just a conductor; he was a “composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist.” [Id.] Bernstein was entrenched in the world of classical music, as the long time music director of the prestigious New York Philharmonic orchestra (1958-1969), but more than that he became the face of classical music in America and around the world as the first conductor to give television lectures on classical music, which he started in 1954 and continued until his death in 1990. [Id.] Bernstein was just as multifaceted as a composer as he was as a musician, writing music in many styles, including “symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and pieces for the piano.” [Id.] However, his greatest commercial successes, and much of his popularity, sprung from his theater and film music, including the scores for West Side Story, Peter Pan, Candide, Wonderful Town, On the Town, and On The Waterfront. And THAT was the focus of the August 9 Britt Classical concert.
The concert included 16 pieces by Bernstein, plus an encore, all presented without an intermission. Once again, at Sunday evening’s concert, Music Director Teddy Abrams was energetic, animated, passionate, engaged, and in full command of the orchestra and its many gifted musicians. He conducted, he played piano (while simultaneously conducting), and he spoke, educating the audience. At one point, Mr. Abrams expounded at length about Mr. Bernstein (whom he confided he has taken to calling “Lenny”), noting that Bernstein was the mentor of his mentor (Michael Tilson Thomas), effectively bestowing upon Abrams the status of professional/philosophical descendant in Bernstein’s lineage. Abrams made a point of what a profound impact Bernstein’s televised music education initiatives (especially his Young People’s Concerts) had, including upon Abrams personally. Had there not been a Leonard Bernstein, then Abrams would not have found the life he now inhabits, he confessed.
I must interject an aside here. Because I too am a product of Leonard Bernstein’s musical education efforts. My father had sat us down in front of the television as young children for ALL of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and many of his other television lectures, such as his earlier Omnibus broadcasts. I would not be writing this, or anything else about music, had it not been for the passion for music and initial kernel of knowledge imparted by Leonard Bernstein and received by my family and myself, more than 50 years ago. (And I am the weak link in the family – my brother is a lifelong music educator, current NafMe officer, former NYSSMA president – those are prominent music education organizations!). I oft remark that in our family, there was NO religion, except music, and Leonard Bernstein was God!
I disclose all this here, because I have to admit to my readers that I am no longer an objective, neutral journalist and critic – Mr. Abrams has won me over. I have held Leonard Bernstein, the musician, the composer, the educator in the highest esteem for most of my life, through his passing in 1990. Never since then have I perceived anyone else in the music pantheon to approximate or resemble the musical figure cut by “Lenny”. Until now. Watching Mr. Abrams this season, seeing his energy, his passion for music, his multifaceted talents (composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, pianist AND clarinetist!), his eclectic approach to music – refusing to be constrained to narrow stereotyped views of what constitutes acceptable classical music, his drive to expand the music education components of the Britt organization and to educate his audience – by God, he IS the lineal descendent of Leonard Bernstein. [I can’t resist mentioning that Bernstein, after earning his B.A. from Harvard, received his advanced musical education from, where else: the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which is of course where Mr. Abrams received his training.] I sometimes get the distinct impression that Abrams is effectively channeling Bernstein’s spirit. [e.g., read my review of last night’s concert, at http://bit.ly/1EpDx1n] So note this disclaimer: my opinions, assessments and discourse about Mr. Abrams and/or Britt Classical concerts are no longer objective commentary, but biased by my belief that Mr. Abrams is the Leonard Bernstein of this era, which is practically a holy mantle.
Well, you’re reading this because you want to know about the concert on August 9, not what makes me (or Mr. Abrams) tick, so I shall return to the subject at hand. The concert began, appropriately, with the orchestra performing the overture from what is undoubtedly Bernstein’s most famous and popular work, the musical (and later album and film) West Side Story. That too has been a lifelong favorite of mine, though clearly I was not alone in that sentiment, as the performance was enthusiastically received by the audience. I’ve seen numerous productions of the show, most recently in San Francisco several years ago, and heard the music countless times on recordings, in broadcasts and in concerts. But this performance by the Britt Orchestra just melted me – you probably could have scraped me off the seat with a trowel, I was so enchanted by it. I need to stop talking and just let you listen a bit. Here’s an excerpt:
I don’t know that there’s anything else I can say that will convey the magnificence of that performance better than the recording does. I suppose if you don’t like Bernstein (or “Classical Pops”), its virtues may be lost upon you. But otherwise, it pretty much establishes the point on its own. One thing I would mention: watch Mr. Abrams conduct the piece – the obvious energy, enthusiasm, movement, passion – now do you want to tell me there isn’t a hint of Leonard Bernstein’s spirit evident?
Following that impressive performance, just as in the concerts of the previous two nights, Mr. Abrams summoned to the stage a fresh but virtuosic collaborator from his generation. On Sunday evening, it was singer Morgan James, a 2003 graduate from the Julliard School, who made her mark in a series of Broadway shows (The Addams Family,Wonderland, Godspell, Motown The Musical) and then segued into a solo career, eventually launching her first album,Hunter, in 2014. [Wikipedia, Morgan James, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgan_James] Ms. James has a voice like an angel, a very operatic one at that, with beautiful sustained notes at the top of her range. (Ms. James has been quoted as saying “I didn’t want a career in opera, but Julliard still shaped me.” [2015 Britt Classical Festival Program notes, p. 34]) Beyond her exquisite voice, Ms. James has a winning personality and is very appealing to the eye to boot. [Now I’m going to get flack for the possibly sexist remark. Wouldn’t say that about a male musician, right? Well, YES, I would. No doubt there are more than a few women in the audience who would confess that Mr. Abrams is appealing to the eye. Attending to one’s looks enhances the appeal of anyone who takes the stage – that’s a fact of life, so why ignore it when a performer deftly attends to that aspect of their stage presence?] Ms. James stepped out onto the stage in an absolutely stunning, floor length green gown. At one point, her winning personality won the day as she related the story about the gown: She didn’t bring it with her, but found it in a knick-knack store while she was browsing in Jacksonville. It was the only piece of clothing in the store, but “it fit her like a glove.” So when an incredulous Mr. Abrams asked her – “but didn’t you bring any dresses with you?” she replied, of course! But on discovering how everything and everyone here is so environmentally conscious, she wanted to wear a green dress for this concert, but didn’t have one until she saw that perfect dress in the Jacksonville store.
By my count, Ms. James sang 12 Bernstein songs (Something’s Coming from West Side Story, Dream with Me from Peter Pan, Simple Song from MASS, I Can Cook Too from On the Town, Lonely Town from On the Town, Some Other Time from On the Town, Ain’t Got No Tears Left from On the Town, I Feel Pretty from West Side Story, Cool from West Side Story, It Must Be So from Candide, Wonderful Town: Conquering New York, My House from Peter Pan, and Make Our Garden Grow fromCandide) sandwiched around two more instrumental numbers by the orchestra (Three Dance Episodes from On the Town and Mambo from West Side Story).
What can I say by way of critiquing these? You already know I love Bernstein and his music. Morgan James has a voice to die for and a stage personality that is just gangbusters. Mr. Abrams, of course, had the consummate orchestra well in hand. For me it was heaven. A few extra wrinkles to mention: Mr. Abrams played piano on the Dream with Menumber, and watching it, one could imagine exactly the same scene in 1950 with “Lenny” there at the piano.
Two of the pieces started one way and finished another. For the performance of I Feel Pretty, it began as an instrumental number by the orchestra, with Ms. James off stage. But midway through the piece, Ms. James returned to the stage and refocused all the attention with her exquisite vocalization of the lyrics, accompanied by apt gestures and expressions, and of course, that stunning dress. No one had any problem believing she felt pretty – she absolutely was the embodiment of pretty. The performance of Cool from West Side Story reversed the sequence – it began as a vocal piece sung by Ms. James; beautifully sung, but a bit incongruous since in the show the number is sung by Riff and the Jets. This time, halfway through, Ms. James departed and the focus shifted to the orchestra for the remainder of the number. The instrumental portion of the number included a wonderful drum riff by Britt percussionist Tony Edwards.
For the song, Some Other Time from On the Town, a featured quartet of musicians (Nathan Farrington on string bass, Gabriel Globus-Hoenich on drums, Teddy Abrams on piano and Conrad Jones on trumpet) joined Ms. James, giving the performance both some additional musical highlights and an added visual boost.
This appeared to be the largest audience for any of the 2015 Classical Festival concerts to date, and they loudly and emphatically demonstrated their approval and appreciation of Ms. James and the orchestra upon the conclusion of the last number listed on the program, Make Our Garden Grow from Candide, sung winsomely by Ms. James. After returning to the stage for several “curtain calls” (if you’ve been there, you know there is no curtain!) to acknowledge the applause, Ms. James and Mr. Abrams returned to their posts on stage to perform an encore, a wistful rendition by Ms. James of the Candide aria, Glitter And Be Gay. It brought the house down again.
I don’t know any better way to say it: this 2015 Britt Classical Festival is as good as classical music gets. Mr. Abrams and the Britt Orchestra keep demonstrating that in a myriad of ways, concert after concert. If you have any love of classical music, you owe it to yourself to get to one of these concerts while you have a chance. If you are a parent, you owe it to your children to get them here, so Teddy Abrams can infect them with a passion for classical music, as his predecessor Leonard Bernstein did for an earlier generation of youth. There are two remaining concerts in the 2015 Britt Classical Season, tonight Friday, August 14 and tomorrow Saturday, August 15. Next up, tonight’s concert features guest soloist, violinist James Ehnes performing Barber’s Violin Concerto, and the orchestra performing contemporary composer Mason Bates’ 2010 composition, Mothership, and Brahms 1877 masterpiece, Symphony No. 2. You can get tickets to the remaining 2015 Britt Classical concerts online at brittfest.org or by calling the box office at 541-773-6077 or 1-800-882-7488.
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on August 14, 2015 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/the-spirit-of-leonard-bernstein-arouses-the-britt-pavilion-on-britt-classical-festivals-fifth-night/