However far Leonard Bernstein's talent seemed to sprawl in every direction, the composer/conductor/pianist/educator began, ended, and so often returned to writing songs. That's what was celebrated at Lyric Fest's Sunday program, Leonard Bernstein — Biography in Music, presented at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
Songs from 1942 to 1988 were not presented in a typical chronological cross section. Instead, selections from On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story, and rare items such as music from his unfinished 1964 adaptation of The Skin of Our Teeth were organized as emotional extensions of biographical narration and letters read by Lyric Fest's Suzanne DuPlantis and Bernstein's ever-engaging daughter Jamie.
It was masterfully assembled and performed, and I say this as someone who has a long backlog of Bernstein performances. The Boston Symphony's Lenny gala in August — that I revisited on a radio broadcast en route to this concert — had unbeatable grandeur, but Lyric Fest took you deeper inside Bernstein's personality.
Bernstein's sorrow over the onset of World War II was illustrated by the vocal movement from his Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah). A key moment from Trouble in Tahiti served to universalize the specific inner challenges Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre, faced. No whitewashing Bernstein's homosexuality here: The concert's emotional peak was a startlingly wise letter from Montealegre saying that she accepted that side of him, and that it should be acknowledged without guilt.
Musically, the concert's success rested on the assemblage of singers who needed no gear shifts between Bernstein's light and serious sides. Randall Scarlata and Jennifer Aylmer knew just how far to go in the hammy "Carried Away" without stealing focus from the song. And that's a key point. Bernstein's emotional extravagance insists that any singer inhabit his songs completely, to live them as well as sing them. As easily as his songs stand outside the shows they were written for, there must always be a character behind them.
However, all the musical information lies in the notes, and to depart from them or to exaggerate the musical contour does nobody any favors. When the mostly magnetic William Ferguson went over the top in expressing unfettered joy in "Simple Song" from Mass, he was gently contradicted by the mild dissonances in the piano writing that prefigure the crises to come in the larger piece. Manhandling Bernstein drains the emotional layers from his songs and makes them about one thing when they're capable of expressing many things simultaneously.
That's true even in the comic "One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man." Elizabeth Shammash sold the song only half as much as Rosalind Russell in the original cast of Wonderful Town but got twice the comic mileage. Bernstein is like that. Ever notice how seldom jazz musicians convincingly riffed on Bernstein songs? (Stan Kenton was one of the few).
Pianist Laura Ward generated enough intensity in the more reflective music to hold off applause until the song was finished. She also revealed thematic links. Bernstein's Broadway songs often echo what came before in the plot and preview what was to come. Ward's clear sense of musical comprehension also showed how Bernstein deftly borrowed from other composers. I had never heard "Spring Will Come Again" from The Skin of our Teeth, but the harmonies were full of deja vu moments. Bernstein once lamented to Candide collaborator Richard Wilbur that he stole tunes without knowing it, and wondered if he had only 12 original melodies to his name. Who cares now? No matter where his tunes came from, he made them original to him.