Composer & conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein at 100
Teddy Abrams, conductor
Morgan James, vocalist
Kent Hatteberg, chorusmaster
UofL Collegiate Chorale
By Shaun Kenney
Entire contents are copyright © 2018 Shaun Kenney. All rights reserved
Opening nights are nothing if not for celebration and what better way to celebrate the opening night of the 2018/2019 Louisville Orchestra season than by celebrating the centennial birth year of Leonard Bernstein. From his first published composition, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, to his retirement and death in 1990, Bernstein was one of the most influential composers, conductors, and educators of the 20th century. Even after his death, his work continues to inspire musicians and audiences alike. In this program, The Louisville Orchestra, UofL Collegiate Chorale, and vocalist Morgan James paid amazing tribute to Bernstein and I’m thankful to count myself among those lucky enough to have experienced it.
I think one of the most important things in designing a program of music is to choose an opening number that not only demands the attention of the audience but also leaves them wanting more. The Overture to Candide is the perfect piece for this. Starting with a raucous fanfare of brass and percussion one can’t help but be drawn in. With a runtime of just over four minutes, we are briefly introduced to several themes from the operetta, some of which we will hear later in the program. Before you can catch your breath, the work ends with a flourish and after thunderous applause, the audience settles in, ready for more. I can’t think of a more suitable opener.
Bernstein’s Symphony No.1 “Jeremiah” is based on the biblical story about the prophet of the same name. The first movement, Prophecy, opens with ominous chords followed by a brief horn solo. Dissonant strings punctuated by harsh brass are insistent in their tone, pleading for you to listen. Ultimately the movement ends quiet, almost mournful, as the prophet realizes that no one has heard him. The second movement, Profanation, is a contrast to the first as it is from the viewpoint of those who refuse to heed the prophecy. Somewhat erratic in nature with pointed staccato from the trumpets and copious use of percussion, it paints a perfect picture of chaos. Lamentation, the third movement, occurs after the destruction of Jerusalem and we are introduced to vocalist Morgan James singing in Hebrew from “The Lamentations of Jeremiah.” James’ tone is resonant and mournful, with a beautiful vibrato that seems made for this work.
The second half of the program was dedicated almost exclusively to Bernstein’s vocal works, the first of which, Hashkiveinu, was written for soloist, chorus, and organ. Conducted by choirmaster Kent Hatteberg with Teddy Abrams on organ, Morgan James intones this Hebrew evening prayer, beautifully accompanied by the UofL Collegiate Chorale. The piece was originally written for solo tenor, however, Ms. James’ rich voice was perfectly suited for the role. Following this was a selection from Bernstein’s Mass, which was performed in full for the opening night of the 2015/2016-orchestra season and is still to this day the most spectacular performance I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. Like the previous piece, “Simple Song” was written for a male vocalist. Yet again, Ms. James succeeded and delivered a sweet and delicate performance Bernstein himself would have been proud of.
West Side Story is by far the most iconic and recognizable of Bernstein’s compositions. Made wildly popular by the release of the movie adaptation in 1961 the music is still unforgettable over 50 years later. The orchestra played the overture, which allowed us to hear the many infamous melodies we are all so familiar with. Morgan James channeled the character of Maria while singing the “Balcony Scene” which most of us will know as “Tonight” but I have to say that I was most impressed by the performance of “Gee, Officer Krupke” which featured the men of the UofL Collegiate Chorale performing in costume at the front of the stage. The dedication these young performers put into their roles was admirable and was way more than show choir material. This could have been a performance straight out of the movie or stage musical.
This brings me to the other aspect that was so impressive and that was the versatility of Morgan James’ voice. I touched on this earlier but it was most perfectly exhibited in the final few solo numbers which included selections from On the Town, Peter Pan, and Candide. From the sultry, jazzy vocals of “Ain’t Got No Tears” and “I Can Cook Too” to the dulcet melody of “My House”, James was top notch but I have to say I think her best performance of the evening was “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide. This work perfectly showcased her skill and virtuosity and clear love for Bernstein’s music. It was exciting, energetic, lively, and really quite funny and was again one of those moments in the evening’s program where I felt like I was watching an actual stage performance instead of a concert. It was spectacular. In Teddy Abrams’ words, this would have been the perfect way to end the concert but I’m awfully glad it wasn’t.
To close out the evening the chorus and orchestra performed two more selections from Candide. Though “Universal Good” and “Make Our Garden Grow” weren’t as exciting as “Glitter and Be Gay” they were no less beautiful and were exquisitely sung and played. Unfortunately, there were a few audience members who left either during these pieces or right after and I’m sorry they did because after a standing ovation Ms. James came back to the stage for an encore and sent us off with her rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story. I do agree that the program was slightly long but looking back at it I wouldn’t have changed a thing. From the opening overture to the closing encore I had a smile on my face and I left wanting more, which is how great music and great performances should make us feel. My congratulations to the Louisville Orchestra on the opening night of their 2018/2019 season. It was truly a triumph.
Bernstein at 100
September 29, 2018
Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 W Main St
Louisville, KY 40202
Shaun Kenney studied Music Education and Instrumental at Campbellsville University. In Louisville, he has worked with Finnigan Productions since its inception, as Stage Manager, Sound Designer, and Director.