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SCRUTINY | Bernstein@100 Offers A Unique Glimpse Into The Artist And The Man

By Joseph So on April 8, 2018


Jamie Berstein (Photo courtesy RCM)
Jamie Bernstein (Photo courtesy RCM)

Jamie Bernstein, narrator; Wallis Giunta, mezzo-soprano; Sebastian Knauer, piano; ARC Ensemble (Erika Raum, violin; Marie Berard, violin; Steven Dann, viola; Julie Hereish, cello; Joaquin Valdepenas, clarinet). Koerner Hall, 8 p.m. April 6, 2018.

Given that 2018 is the 100 year anniversary of the birth of the great American composer/conductor/pianist Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), many concert presenters are rushing to program his works in tribute. For devotees of Bernstein, this has turned into a veritable musical feast. For example, in a span of eight months this year, I will have seen his Candide three times(!), at the Toronto Operetta Theatre, a concert at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the fully staged version at the Santa Fe Opera!  It was even rumoured (and recently confirmed in my interview with Alexander Neef) that the COC was planning a co-production of West Side Story, but sadly it fell through.

As tributes go, Bernstein@100 last evening under the auspices of the Royal Conservatory of Music was something very special, thanks to the presence of Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s eldest daughter. She served as narrator to Anniversaries, a compilation of 29 piano miniatures, penned by Bernstein between 1942 and 1986, here played by German pianist Sebastian Knauer.  Bernstein introduced each piece, following by the musical selection. With so much talking in an essentially musical evening, it can come across as rather disjointed and episodic, but it was entirely to the good this time. I for one enjoyed Ms. Bernstein’s pithy comments and breezy delivery. More importantly, it helped flesh out the idea behind each work, giving the audience a deeper understanding of Bernstein the man.

The 29 musical tributes are dedicated to the many significant individuals in the composer’s life. Many are well-known personages in the musical world, such as Aaron Copland, Stephen Sondheim, and Sergei Koussevitzky. Others are from his personal life, such as Felicia Montealegre (his wife), Nina (his daughter), and Aaron Stern (his lover). Quite fittingly, the last tribute is dedicated to a Miss Ellen Goetz, a loyal fan who traveled far and wide to hear the maestro conduct. It’s quite telling that Bernstein, ever the showman, appreciated the value of a devoted audience.

For over an hour, I found myself drawn into the story, so well told by Jamie Bernstein. There was also judicious use of projections on a big screen, helping the audience to put a face to a name.  The piano pieces, with few exceptions, are “Quiet Bernstein,” with the composer at his most delicate, introspective, and evocative.  Several served as melodic germs for larger works to come. Through it all, Sebastian Knauer played with exemplary care and sensitivity, all the while using the score discreetly on top of the piano. None of the pieces are particularly virtuosic, but it didn’t matter. The German pianist dutifully played within the aesthetic boundaries of each, and everything was executed with the requisite lyricism.

The second half opened with the ARC Ensemble playing String Quartet No. 11 by Walter Kaufmann, a work premiered nearly 80 years ago and not performed since. Its choice would have been a complete mystery if it weren’t for RCM Executive Director Mervon Mehta, in his customary talk before each concert, revealing to the audience that the premiere was led by his grandfather Mehli Mehta at the Bombay Chamber Music Society! Quite apart from this rather circuitous connection, this work, combining eastern and western sonorities, is wonderfully exquisite to my ears and entirely worthy of revival. Glad to know that the show has been captured for later broadcast, as it deserves to be heard. I don’t mean to ignore the wonderful playing of the ARC Ensemble, and they were indeed fabulous here, joined by guest cellist Julie Hereish here and by pianist Knauer later in the songs.

The final segment was a group of eight Bernstein songs, given chamber arrangements by Peter Tiefenbach, and sung by fast-rising mezzo Wallis Giunta. Dressed in an absolutely stunning, tight-fitting silver-lame gown, the mezzo looked like a million dollars, with a gleaming voice to match. I’ve only heard her in staid operatic repertoire, so it’s rather surprising how idiomatic she is in this rep, down to every side glance, hip sway and hand gesture.  To be sure, she let her hair down (figuratively, but also literally – waist length) for these numbers – talk about a ham-it-up, no-holds-barred, over-the-top performance!  Kudos to Giunta for completely abandoning operatic convention and used her chest voice liberally, probably more on this one evening than the whole time she was a member of the COC Ensemble Studio.

The pieces were all familiar numbers, from West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Candide. Bernstein is at his most idiomatic in some of these songs, a few with ribald lyrics full of double entendre. Too bad that the risqué line in “I Can Cook, Too” from On The Town by Comden and Green – something to the effect that “My oven is the hottest in town” went past without so much as a snicker from the audience, despite Giunta’s excellent English diction. I once heard the American soprano Evelyn Lear – a Bernstein favourite – sang this live and she absolutely cracked up the audience.  Another highlight was “I’m Easily Assimilated,” delivered with exaggerated accents by Giunta.

In the quieter songs, she was also affecting. I loved her “A Little Bit in Love,” and “Some Other Time,” this last one my personal favourite Bernstein. A bittersweet song, it’s about the fleetingness of time, how opportunities for love and fulfillment can slip away without one’s even realizing it. Who can forget the late Barbara Cook’s divine treatment of this? I wouldn’t be honest if I say Giunta has mastered that same melancholy, that resignation and regret of a Barbara Cook. She hasn’t, but for a young singer still with her big career ahead of her, Giunta’s interpretation is already lovely and will continue to grow.  Koerner Hall, while not sold out, was gratifyingly full, and the audience gave all the artists warm ovations. For me, this was definitely a highlight of the 2017-18 concert season. If you’ve missed it, have no fear.  It was taped for airing on the CBC. I, for one, am looking forward to hearing it again. Bernstein fans, stay tuned!

Joseph So
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