A Bernstein Fest


I fell in love with Art Song, especially German Lieder, at Barnard College in New York, thanks to my late, great professor, Hubert Doris, and the singers I heard onstage and on LP, among them Fischer-Dieskau, de los Angeles, Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Berry and Prey. In the decades since, I have made sure to catch most song recitals within reach — and some quite far afield — by an array of singers too numerous to list here. So I was delighted when Lyric Fest appeared on the Philadelphia music scene in 2003. In the intervening years, there have been 80 programs with some 200 performers, the annual series of four to six vocal recitals combining song with narration and readings from composers’ correspondence. New works are also part of the repertoire, over 40 of them so far.

The stated goal of founders Randi Marrazzo, soprano, and current Artistic Directors Laura Ward, pianist, and Suzanne DuPlantis, mezzo soprano, was that of “connecting people through song” whether fans of Art Song or just becoming acquainted with it – and “song” can also be classic popular, music theater, and international. The programming is always inventive, the repertoire both familiar and intriguing, the narrations and program notes informative, entertaining and very well-written (by DuPlantis) and — crucial — speech never outweighs music. So every year, I have attended (and consistently enjoyed) as many of these “Fests” as possible, among them the series “Biography in Music” including Mahler and Brahms; Vienna, City of Song; and two compilations of vocal music enjoyed by US presidents. Surprise: Lincoln was an opera fan, his favorite being Flotow’s Martha, inviting a troupe to perform it for his second Inauguration! Fittingly, in the 2017 iteration of “Music in the White House” young lyric tenor Matthew White gave an impassioned rendition of M’apparì.

 Lyric Fest’s 2018-2019 season began on October 21 as part of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society series, with one of the 3000-ish events taking place worldwide in this centennial year of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, the extraordinary conductor, composer, pianist, writer, teacher, linguist, activist and altogether exceptional human being (“genius” is in no way too strong) who was among the greatest gifts America has produced not only to music but to humanity. This “Biography in Music” followed the intricate, variegated, sometimes difficult, mostly triumphant path of his life, both professional and personal, revealing both his exuberance and his inner struggles. A chronological narration was read both elegantly and affectionately by DuPlantis, while letters, mostly from Leonard Bernstein but a few to him, were read by his daughter Jamie, who has clearly inherited her father’s knack for public speaking, whether serious or amusing.

The twenty-five songs ranged in date from 1942 (Lamentations, from his Jeremiah Symphony) to 1988 (Greeting, from Arias and Barcarolles) but were presented not in order of composition, rather in ideal musical and dramaturgical juxtaposition and most importantly, in relation to the emotions, musings, recollections, and questionings expressed in the correspondence. Thus the opening ensemble To the Poem from Songfest (1977) became a kind of “Voilà Lenny” in its Frank O’Hara text beginning “Let us do something grand” and otherwise subtle and ironic, while Lonely Town from On the Town (1944), sung touchingly by smooth-voiced baritone Randall Scarlata, perfectly reflected Bernstein’s feelings six years earlier while at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Mentor Aaron Copland replied to a desperate missive from the 20-year-old, in part: “As for your general ‘disappointment’ in art, man, and life I can only advise perspective, perspective, and yet more perspective.”

Naturally, there were welcome examples of Bernstein’s music-theater masterpiece West Side Story (1956) with its inimitable lyrics by the young Stephen Sondheim. Fresh-voiced soprano Jennifer Aylmer and tenor William Ferguson gave a tender, optimistic rendition of One Hand, One Heart before a segment about Bernstein’s 1951 honeymoon with Felicia Montealegre. The other two excerpts were set in the context of the work’s evolution, creation and what was a genuine revelation: the New York Daily News critic called it “a venturesome forward step… a bold new kind of musical theatre – a juke-box Manhattan opera.” Ferguson, just standing still yet exuding anticipation and wonder, sang Something’s Coming with the sweet tone yet strength needed for Tony; mezzo Elizabeth Shammash projected the hope, yet pathos, of Somewhere.

Comic relief was inserted between these two more-serious moments with I Hate Music, from the 1943 I Hate Music! A Cycle of Five Kid Songs, words also by Bernstein, its humorous charm and intermittent patter-song elements handled with equal finesse by Aylmer. Speaking of comedy, she and Scarlata displayed a knack for the broader kind in the witty Carried Away, a very different aspect of On the Town from Lonely Town, Lucky to Be Me (also sung by Scarlata, convincing and natural) and another two. Shammash revealed her strong comic flair in 100 Easy Ways To Lose a Man; this and two others from Wonderful Town (1953) added to the other five to show the utter brilliance and versatility of Bernstein’s almost-lifelong librettists and friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

But I wonder how many in the audience were familiar with the trio’s heartbreaking So Pretty, premiered by Barbra Streisand with Bernstein at the piano for the1968 “Broadway for Peace” concert at Lincoln Center, a fundraiser for candidates who opposed the Vietnam War. Shammash gave the exquisite piece a subdued performance, yet showing the quality of her voice and expressiveness. Bernstein had written earlier of the atomic bomb: “…frightening… if a few unscrupulous men got a hold of it? We are knocking on the door of heaven. You may quote me.”

Another very much lesser-known creation was Civet a toute Vitesse (Rabbit at top speed) from La Bonne Cuisine (1947), four recipes by Ėmile Dumont (1829-87) whose La Bonne Cuisine Française was among Bernstein’s cookbooks. Ferguson’s rendition was so cleverly acted — yet never exaggerated – I thought I could smell the onion and taste the claret!

And there were Candide, Trouble in Tahiti, Mass, more from Songfest, etc — a worthy panorama of Bernstein’s skill with his favorite instrument. the human voice (he often said, lamenting his own gravelly one). Though he did not conduct very many operas, he did lead two with Maria Callas, both at La Scala: in 1953, he was asked to take over from the ailing Victor DeSabata for Cherubini’s Medea (“the soprano who does the title role is terrific,” he wrote) and in 1955, this time in honor of the triumph of  Medea,  Bellini’s La Sonnambula (“Well, she knows what she wants and gets it, but since she’s always right, this wastes no time.”)

Two aspects clinched this Lyric Fest success: the remarkably clear diction of the singers (the printed texts were almost unnecessary, though great to have available) and pianist Laura Ward. She was as comfortable in the enormous variety of Bernstein’s pianistics as in the many Lieder from Schubert to Brahms, Strauss to Wolf, and more, in which I’ve admired her for years, her technique as precise as ever, her sense of text and emotion as sensitive as always.

As in every Lyric Fest concert I’ve experienced, there was a palpable sense of warmth, excitement, and enjoyment in the nearly-full 650-seat Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center, and understandably even more of a sense of identification than otherwise, especially for me. In 1967, while working part-time in the New York Philharmonic Archives, I met Bernstein, my idol from his televised Young People’s Concerts in the late 1950’s and ‘60’s — and from then on, in America and Europe, I spent countless hours at his rehearsals, concerts, recording sessions, and even some post-performance parties. Our last encounter was in April 1990 after a Mozart choral concert in Munich; he died October 15. The world – including mine – would never be the same. Susan Gould