Carnegie opens season with tribute to Bernstein

September 25, 2008 5:18:48 PM PDT
They threw a birthday party for him, and it wasn't even his birthday.Carnegie Hall opened its 118th season with a celebration of Leonard Bernstein, the conductor, composer, musical Confucius and mentor who died 18 years ago at age 72.

Wednesday night's performance, videotaped for a PBS-TV broadcast Oct. 29, was hosted by one of the master's proteges - Michael Tilson Thomas, who led his San Francisco Symphony and an all-star cast of soloists.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Dawn Upshaw, baritone Thomas Hampson, Broadway's Christine Ebersole and some fine Juilliard School students shared the stage in this joyous tribute nearly a month after what would have been Bernstein's 90th birthday.

"It's so wonderful to be able to celebrate such a great artist," Thomas told the sellout crowd. "He was such a great friend to so many people. With his music, he still seems to reach out and embrace us."

From the Carnegie podium, Thomas couldn't resist borrowing a page from Bernstein's iconic Young People's Concerts to enlighten the gala audience, which included Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, Caroline Kennedy, Barbara Walters, Oscar de la Renta and Bernstein's brother, Burton - who bears a startling resemblance to Lenny.

"It's fascinating," Thomas said. "When you think of him as such an enthusiastic, up, up, up kind of guy, and yet so many of his pieces, 'West Side Story' including, end so quietly, so questioning. Why is that?"

Thomas then used the orchestra to show how Bernstein translated his concerns into music: In a rabbinical style - optimistic high chords are answered by low ones that raise questions.

"He was a real guy with real demons and real questions, lots of them unanswered," Thomas explained. "His highest purpose was to make music that would inspire people to make a better world."

The evening's first number was Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story," an adaptation of songs from what is perhaps Bernstein's greatest piece of music. Thomas' dancing on the podium was evocative of Lenny, albeit more controlled than Bernstein's pirouettes and displays of angst.

The finger snaps and shouts of "Mambo" by the musicians delighted the audience. But even more moving were the solos by some of the orchestra's fine players, especially the principal strings, French horn, flute and oboe in the tender moments and the percussion and trumpet thumping and blaring during the frenzied dance and piercing during the gang fights.

Hampson and Upshaw then performed songs from Bernstein's last opera, "A Quiet Place." After a tension-filled orchestral introduction, Hampson's biting "You're Late" captured the anger of the character he was portraying. Upshaw's pure tones glided up and down her vocal range in "Morning, Good Morning."

After intermission, Ebersole swung into ebullient action with big-band-style tunes from "On the Town." She got a thumbs up from Thomas when she belted out "I hit a high C."

After Ebersole's rollicking numbers, Ma trotted out on stage, quickly sat down and leaned into his cello to unleash the solemn passion of Meditation No. 1 from "Mass."

Then another mood change - Upshaw singing the flighty "What a Movie" from "Trouble in Tahiti" while Thomas rocked on the podium to the Latin syncopation.

Hampson, Ma and the orchestra then performed another pensive number, "To What You Said," from "Songfest." Ma's cello and Hampson's voice soared through the heartfelt melody.

The high point of the night was "Gee Officer Krupke." Wearing 1950's style fashions - slicked hair, tight sweater, blue jeans with rolled up cuffs and black shoes, Paul LaRosa tormented the tormenting cop of "West Side Story." With creative choreography by Jeanne Slater, he and his four fellow Juilliard students danced and sang in the small space available to them on the crowded stage.

In the final number, the evening's performers returned for the romp "Ya Got Me" from "On the Town." They all sang - even Thomas, who prompted the audience to join in with singing and rhythmic clapping. They rewarded the performers with a five-minute standing ovation.

In addition to inaugurating Carnegie's season, the performance kicked off a citywide salute to Lenny through Dec. 13. Some 50 events are planned for the festival "Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds," including an educational program involving 150 city schools. In a harmonic convergence of round numbers, the festival also will commemorate the 65th anniversary of Bernstein's debut with the New York Philharmonic and the 50th anniversary of his appointment as its music director.

What will they do for an encore in 10 years - for the Bernstein centenary?

Ya got me?