What could bring luminaries from the worlds of opera, musical theatre, a cappella, jazz, dance, choral music, and symphonic music together for one night of heavenly tunes? Perhaps nothing short of celebrating the life, legacy, and incredibly inspiring body of work of Leonard Bernstein.
This year marks what would have been American composer Bernstein’s 100th birthday. While we lost him back in 1990, his classic works such as West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide live on and are performed around the world.
On July 27 the National Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor and Bernstein protege Michael Barrett, together with the Choral Arts Society and a stunning conglomeration of soloists and ensembles, came together at Wolf Trap to pay tribute to Bernstein.
The concert was thoughtfully constructed and split into two acts. During the first, the NSO explored some of Bernstein’s choral, chamber, and vocal music. After intermission, the performers explored some of Bernstein’s more well-known Broadway songs. The major takeaway? Bernstein’s composition skills were wildly versatile. The evening began with the Overture from Candide followed by Chichester Psalms and excerpts from Songfest. Bernstein explored giving voice to a Latina woman, Negro spirituals, and the angelic sound of a boy soprano (artfully sung by local sixth grader Enzo Baldanza). Throughout his career, he created music in a variety of styles.
Bernstein’s daughter Nina Bernstein-Simmons narrated on and off throughout the night, providing context to the selections and pulling back the curtain on the man being celebrated. A particular highlight was her recitation of a letter Bernstein had written to his wife days before opening night of West Side Story in Washington D.C. The musical originated at the National Theatre before moving to Broadway. “Well, look-a me. Back to the nation’s capital, & right on the verge. This is Thurs. We open Mon. Everyone’s coming, my dear, even Nixon and 35 admirals.”
The second act began with an introduction of On the Town by Japanese-American actor and activist George Takei, best known for his role on Star Trek. Takei set the stage by explaining the context in which the show first came to Broadway: the height of World War II. He shared that the original Miss Turnstiles was played by Japanese-American actress Sono Osato, whose family could not attend her performance because they were in internment camps with thousands of other Japanese Americans, like Takei’s own family.
Highlights of the second act included premiere ballerina Misty Copeland and Tony Yazbeck performing the dream ballet from On the Town, choreographed by Josh Bergasse. Copeland, who became widely known after becoming the first African-American principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre in 2015, was once-in-a-lifetime-stunning reprising Ivy Smith, the role she played on Broadway in the show’s recent revival.
And with Yazbeck’s perfectly controlled dancing in the dream ballet and his glorious take on “Maria” from West Side Story a few numbers later, it’s not difficult to see why he is the first choice by today’s directors to revisit classic roles once played by Gene Kelley and Danny Kaye. He is like a classic star of yesteryear transported to 2018 for our enjoyment. Lucky us.
The evening’s finale was a hopeful take on Candide’s “Make Our Garden Grow” presented by the entire company followed by a tear-inducing encore: “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
The entire celebration of Bernstein’s artistic contributions served as a poignant reminder that art is culturally influential and inherently political. It is up to artists to determine how they will wield their influence. Throughout the evening it was apparent that Bernstein lived by deep convictions that were often unpopular. He wanted equality for all and fought for that equality by giving voice to the voiceless in his music. The soaring melodies he left us with are incredibly inspiring, but the bravery by which he confronted social issues through his music may be even more inspiring.
Bernstein at 100: A Celebration played one night only on July 27, 2018, at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts, 1551 Trap Rd, Vienna, VA. For more information and tickets to future Wolf Trap events, go online.