Vocal Arts DC opens season with a feast of Bernstein rarities

Mon Nov 06, 2017 at 12:26 pm
By Joan Reinthaler

The New York Festival of Song presented a Leonard Bernstein celebration Sunday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

Vocal Arts DC’s season-opening concert in the Kennedy Center’s newly reopened Terrace Theater celebrated two anniversaries Sunday night–Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday and the 30th anniversary of New York Festival of Song.

Bernstein is being feted all over the place and particularly at the Kennedy Center, which, in addition to concerts, has mounted an impressive exhibit of his memorabilia. The NYFOS is celebrating itself by doing what it has been doing so well for the last 30 years–putting together wonderful programs of vocal music featuring young singers and coaching these singers to splendidly idiomatic performances.

NYFOS founders Steven Blier and Michael Barrett are still at the helm, presiding from their respective piano keyboards and Blier is still adding context to the songs with his commentary. He seems to have an inexhaustible repository of stories – about the music, about the composers and about artistic life in general, usually funny, often naughty.

On Sunday it was all Bernstein but, except for “Something’s Coming” and  the “Tonight” encore, both from West Side Story, not the Bernstein that almost everyone can hum. There were songs from his big flop 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. a show that closed after just seven performances, two songs that never made it to the final version of On the Town but that Blier resurrected from the cutting room floor and a terrific three-song scene from his late cycle Arias and Barcarolles that almost never gets performed. The program ended with six songs from Songfest, another neglected collection that just got a complete airing by the National Symphony Orchestra last week

Blier and Barrett cast their programs very much the way producers of a show do. With a program of lieder, they find singers with rich plummy sounds and great final consonants. The six-singer “cast” for this program had more varied assignments and had to project both dramatically and informally.

Bass-baritone Adrian Rosas sang with an open, edgy sound that suited the hapless and impatient president’s “Let’s Have a Ball” from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He was also the contemplative gay lover, although, perhaps, not as convincingly, in To What You Said” on a Whitman poem from Songfest.

Soprano Chelsea Shephard was Cunegonde to  tenor Miles Mykkanen’s Candide conveyed all the innocence and uncertainty in the duet “You Were Dead, You Know” but tempered the fuzzy halo around her voice for an intensely dramatic reading ofA Julia de Burgos” from Songfest.

For the scene from Arias and Barcarolles a couple on the brink of either separation or reconciliation, mezzo Anne Rosen and baritone Justin Austin had just the right air of uncertainty and miscommunication. Austin’s steely bitterness that knocked heads with mezzo Lucia Bradford’s huge passion in “I Too Sing America/Okay Negros” from Songfest. And Bradford, armed with a luscious voice and a formidable dramatic flair was devastating in “Ain’t Got No Tears Left” from On the Town.

Blier and Barrett accompanied the show tunes with just the kind of relaxed sense of swing and jazz that Bernstein needs. A pair of percussionists, the only other instrumentalists on the stage, supplied the occasional whoosh of brushes and Barrett, slapping the side of his piano rhythmically from time to time, added crunch to the texture.

Songfest, however, was originally scored for full orchestra; this reduction for piano and percussion, by John Musto, excellent as it is, has both plusses and minuses. On the minus side is the obvious loss of color. On the plus side, however, is the fact that the singers can actually be heard, blessedly without amplification. And, with reduced forces, the song cycle may have a fighting chance of being performed more frequently.

And what a pleasure to hear this music in the renovated Terrace Theater, one of the few medium-size houses in the area with an acoustic that is both warm and kind to chamber performances.

Vocal Arts DC presents baritone Andrei Bondarenko and pianist Gary Matthewman 7:30 p.m. December 5 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. vocalartsdc.org

Joan Reinthaler moved to Washington DC in 1963 to conduct the Camerata Chorus of Washington and, later, the Continuum Chamber Chorus. She has been reviewing classical music for the Washington Post since Paul Hume was chief critic. She is a retired math teacher, an avid choral singer, a very amateur violist and currently works with young math teachers in the DC public schools.


One Response to “Vocal Arts DC opens season with a feast of Bernstein rarities”

  1. Posted Nov 06, 2017 at 7:49 pm by charles ceraulo

    thanks for the intelligent and artistic review. Bernstein can be appreciated even beyond New York City. Love him and his wonderful music-he is alive once again….and making audiences happy again.

    thanks for enlightening all your readers.

    Charles Ceraulo

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