Symphony swings and sings with Bernstein
Of all the multifold moods and personalities that course through the music of Leonard Bernstein, there are two traits that stand out as particularly characteristic — his jazzy energy and his tender, sometimes sodden sentimentality. And those were the focus of Friday night’s exuberant and ingratiating all-Bernstein concert by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall.
The program marked the beginning, aside from the glittery “Candide” Overture that launched the orchestra’s season-opening gala concert last week, of a yearlong observation to the composer’s centennial — which is in 2018, but I suppose there’s no harm in celebrating early.
Still to come are chances to encounter Bernstein’s more philosophical side (“The Age of Anxiety” in November, the Serenade next February) and his mastery of high-octane theatrical vividness (a concert “Candide” in January).
But first, we had the opportunity to shake our hips and shed a tear — and sometimes a little of both at once. It seemed like an admirably representative portrait of at least a part of Bernstein’s creative persona.
Happily, Thomas and the orchestra found a way to encapsulate each of these trademark veins. “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs,” the splashy curtain-raiser that presses the strains of big-band jazz into a more traditional concert setting, got an aerodynamic rendition to open the evening, buoyed by the bustling, expressive solo flights of principal clarinetist Carey Bell.
In a more sedate mode was the lovely, upholstered “Chichester Psalms” from 1965, in which Bernstein proudly and a little provocatively declared his allegiance to the tonal system of harmony. His Hebrew settings of several excerpts from the Book of Psalms take wing (when they do) on the strength of the sheer tonal beauty and unabashed warmth of Bernstein’s writing, which means the performers have to follow suit.
As it happens, tonal beauty is one of the superpowers of Ragnar Bohlin’s San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and Friday’s performance was nothing if not alluring — vigorous but soft-grained in the opening movement with its ever-so-slightly irregular rhythms, and impossibly lush in the warm-toned finale, which also featured gorgeous contributions from cellists Peter Wyrick, Barbara Bogatin, Barbara Andres and Carolyn McIntosh. In the tender middle movement, boy soprano Nicholas Hu floated a solo line as pure and clear as a millstream.
Sentimentality had a tougher time in Bernstein’s late song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles,” in spite of performances by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny that were little short of revelatory. This suite of half-a-dozen vocal selections, bracketed by a prelude and postlude, give a glimpse of Bernstein romping through a range of stylistic ideas, from pop ballads and Sousa marches to a dark Expressionist undercurrent.
All of it is good fun from a musical standpoint, but the project has to contend with Bernstein’s insistence on fitting out that music with his own awkward, trite verbal texts. There are bursts of lovey-dovey gush that Hallmark would have rejected as too mawkish, a domestic scene of no interest to anyone but the characters’ friends and a silly dialogue that prides itself on a Pirandellian make-it-up-as-we-go-along esthetic.
The only way to sell this stuff is to have singers of utter conviction and dramatic verve. Leonard, who is set to do her own all-Bernstein solo recital next week with San Francisco Performances, and McKinny, who is part of the cast of the upcoming John Adams-Peter Sellars opera “Girls of the Golden West,” lavished each song with a full helping of brilliance.
Perhaps Bernstein’s most concise and perfectly judged blend of pizzazz and pure emotion came with “West Side Story,” and the Symphonic Dances from that score brought the program to a splendid and emblematic close. There was energy aplenty in the extroverted movements, along with a dose of expressive intimacy that captured the magic of this masterpiece.