During his lifetime, Leonard Bernstein fiercely opposed the attempts of others to pigeonhole him or his music. “I would say that every one of his popular pieces is very serious, and every one of his serious pieces is also popular,” said conductor Marin Alsop, artistic curator of the Ravinia Festival’s centennial celebration of the American composer, conductor, advocate and activist.
If the first half of Ravinia’s centennial homage in 2018 emphasized Bernstein’s works for the concert hall, the second edition this summer pays extended homage to him as a composer for the theater. Understanding his theatricality is key to our understanding of Bernstein, since it coursed in his veins like red corpuscles, making him effectively the star player on his own stage. In fact, practically everything he composed, conducted, performed, authored or broadcasted into America’s living rooms carried the smell of greasepaint — even if the music itself had nothing to do with the theater.
Back by popular demand on July 20 will be Bernstein’s magnum opus, the 1971 theater piece Mass, featuring the same forces — more than 200 artists onstage — that made this eclectic piece the cornerstone of Ravinia’s Bernstein bash, Part 1. The roster includes the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vocality chorus and Chicago Children’s Choir, the Highland Park High School Marching Band, a 22-member “Street Chorus” and baritone Paulo Szot (as the Celebrant), again under Alsop, who led last summer’s Ravinia and CSO premiere of Mass.
“We usually don’t encore anything at Ravinia, but Mass was such a success, on so many levels, that this felt like something special to make happen again, especially given its acclaim by our North Shore family,” Kauffman said. Alsop was greatly moved by the “extremely emotional response” of patrons and the CSO musicians alike to the work she emphatically believes is Bernstein’s “masterpiece.”
Highlighting the August line-up will be Ravinia’s first full presentations of Bernstein’s music theater gems Candide (1956) and Trouble in Tahiti (1951).
Bernstein’s tune-laden, wryly satirical Broadway operetta Candide (whose sparkling overture remains a staple of the concert repertoire) will be performed Aug. 28 by The Knights under their conductor, Eric Jacobsen. The production, which originated last summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival, will be staged by Alison Moritz, with choreography by John Heginbotham, a dancer formerly with the Mark Morris Dance Group. The cast will feature Miles Mykkanen in the title role, Sharleen Joynt as Cunegonde (who gets to chirp “Glitter and Be Gay”), and Evan Jones triple-cast as Voltaire, Pangloss and Cacambo, with two alumni of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute vocal program rounding out the stars: Margaret Gawrysiak as the Old Lady and Baroness, and Alex Mansoori taking on all four of the Baron, Governor, Vanderdendur and Ragotski.
The first and wittiest of Bernstein’s two operas, Trouble in Tahiti examines the unhappy marriage of a middle-aged couple, portrayed by Szot and soprano Patricia Racette, who reside in a suburb akin to Ravinia’s hometown of Highland Park. Alsop will lead the pair, plus the “jazz trio” of RSMI vocal alumni Michelle Areyzaga, Nils Nilsen and Nathaniel Olson and members of the Chicago Philharmonic, in two performances on the same day, Aug. 22 (5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.), in Ravinia’s Martin Theatre. “Paulo and Patricia had never worked together before they starred in Kurt Weill’s opera Street Scene last year in Madrid,” Kauffman said. “Their chemistry is fantastic, and they are thrilled to be reuniting at Ravinia.”
Bernstein’s signature masterpiece, the musical “West Side Story” (1961), will arrive at Ravinia on July 12, with the CSO performing the score with a viewing of the restored 1961 best picture Oscar winner, to be projected on screens in the pavilion and on the lawn. David Newman will conduct, just as when the movie last “played” Ravinia in 2014. Newman and the CSO also will provide the live accompaniment to a screening on Aug. 9 of director Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” (1954). The film took home eight Oscars, including best actor for Marlon Brando, although Bernstein’s inspired score — his only fling with Tinseltown—lost out in the best soundtrack category to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for “The High and the Mighty.”
On July 27, Alsop will be joined by her good friend the author and broadcaster Jamie Bernstein, Leonard’s oldest child and author of last year’s absorbing, warts-and-all memoir Famous Father Girl, for “Leonard Bernstein: Man for All Music.” A compendium of stories, songs, and symphonic music, this program features the CSO in extracts from his broad repertoire, with soloists ranging from young instrumental virtuosi Ifetayo Ali-Landing and Harmony Zhu to Met star Isabel Leonard alongside Szot, DeYoung and Nilsen.
Note: This is an excerpt from an article published in the Ravinia magazine. To read the full version, click here.
John von Rhein retired as classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune in July 2018, after more than 40 years in that post. He continues to write about music on a free-lance basis.
TOP: Leonard Bernstein at the opening of “West Side Story.” | Photo: Library of Congress