Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
May 11, 2018

Leonard Bernstein, the American composer and conductor who was born 100 years ago this August, got the best of all possible tributes from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and members of the Philharmonia Choir under the assured direction of John Wilson, a specialist in American music. Titled The Bernstein Songbook, this concert (with traffic smartly directed by Mitchell Butel) concentrated primarily on songs from Bernstein’s musicals. However, the selection was by no means obvious. In the short set from his best-known work West Side Story, one of the three numbers was the patter song Gee Officer Krupke! It was performed with brio and Bronx accents by Michael Hart, Ryan Gonzales, Matthew Manahan and Shaun Rennie: all highly experienced and well-known Australian music theatre singers.

Less familiar fare in the program included excerpts from the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, Peter Pan, and A White House Cantata. The latter is a late work, put together from the score of a flop musical about a century of the presidency (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), which Bernstein composed in 1976 to a libretto by Alan Jay Lerner. That show may have flopped, but last night’s performance of two excerpts showed that its failure was certainly not due to Bernstein’s music, and gave the lie to the generally accepted idea that his inspiration evaporated in the wake of his conducting career. Overall, this concert reminded us that while Bernstein was a populist composer he was by no means lightweight: his music is full of complex rhythms, tricky harmonic shifts, and above all an extraordinary range of orchestral colours. Conductor John Wilson balanced precision and excitement expertly – as the man who reconstructed the original orchestrations by ear of many golden-age MGM musicals, he knows his stuff! – and the orchestra clearly enjoyed working with him. Their precision, balance and solo work was exemplary, notably in the stunning Symphonic Suite from Bernstein’s sole film score On the Waterfront.

Right from the concert’s opening from the musical On the Town, ushered in by Todd Keys’ resonant bass, we knew we were in good hands. That also applies to the three principal singers, all of whom had the perfect blend of Broadway and operatic voices for this material, and a sure sense of how to sell it. Soprano Lorina Gore’s comic timing in the aria Glitter and Be Gay from Candide made light of her brilliant technique in mastering the taxing coloratura. It was one of many show-stopping performances. English tenor and actor Julian Ovenden gave tonally beautiful and dramatically nuanced renditions of Lonely Town (On the Town) and Maria (West Side Story). His clear, focused tenor was a pleasure to hear. The centrepiece of the show was mezzo-soprano Kim Criswell, who record collectors would know from a series of recordings of Gershwin’s musicals. A true Broadway diva, she had all the comic sass and more necessary for numbers like I Can Cook Too (On the Town), A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man (Wonderful Town), I Am Easily Assimilated (Candide – which featured hilarious backup work from Ryan Gonzales and Matthew Manahan), but Criswell also produced an impressive ‘legit’ voice to do justice to the plaintive song from the Whitehouse Cantata, Take Care of This House. (It was sung in the original Broadway show by Patricia Routledge.)

With a stirring finale from Candide (Make Our Garden Grow) and a brisk encore from West Side Story (America), this terrific concert finished on a high – just as Lenny would have wished.


Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s The Bernstein Songbook has one more performance tonight, May 12 

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