Having been in choir for the past 15 years of my life, it would be an understatement to say that the songs of Leonard Bernstein have a special and nostalgic value to them. Growing up, my stepmom forced us to watch West Side Story more times than I can count, and seeing the way the music affected and entertained my family no matter what age or gender has made me realize just how approachable Bernstein’s works are. That being said, watching Michael Tilson Thomas’s “A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein” was walk down memory lane. But more importantly, it shows the flexibility of Bernstein’s work and just how many different people his music has impacted and inspired, from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to famous soprano Christine Ebersole.
The performances took place on October 29th at Carnegie Hall, and featured famous Bernstein selections as played by the San Fransisco Symphony. The celebration opened with Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Never in my life have I seen a symphony play with so much joy and vibrancy. Michael Tilson Thomas’s precise and passionate directing came together with the expertise of the players to create sounds that were composed and exact while being heartfelt and real enjoyment–there was this quality to the music that made it seem like the sounds themselves were dancing and smiling throughout the hall.
The vocal songs, too, were very lively and done with great proficiency. Their performance of “I Can Cook Too” from On The Town featured Christine Ebersole and was fun and impossible not to tap your toes to. The Symphony showed its ability to play as a commanding front line or as a support for Ebersole, and Ebersole’s voice was full of personality and character–her growling alto range and powerful belts generated a sense of confidence and cheekiness that fit with the mood of the song excellently.
Another personal favorite of the show was Yo-Yo Ma’s performance. I’m a huge fan of Yo-Yo Ma’s playing, and I was taken aback by his interpretation of “Meditation No. 1.” I loved the way his face and playing always seemed to match up perfectly–he is a perfect example of the way music can have a visceral effect on a musician or listener. There’s this palpable sense of intensity coming from his masterful playing in combination with the harsh yet meticulous accompaniment that the symphony played. In particular, I thought the way all the string parts contrasted and convened was remarkable and gripping.
My favorite part of the production in general was the overall versatility of the show. As I mentioned before, Bernstein’s works touch a lot of different people, and this is perhaps because of his wide range of compositions. Well I appreciated the video excerpts of Michael Tilson Thomas speaking with various soloists and musicians about their musical history and relationship with Bernstein, I did think they were a little contrived. The conversations felt forced and staged, and I would have rather experienced the musician’s answers through their playing rather through an insincere speech.