March 06, 2019

A Musician for America: Lyric Celebrates Leonard Bernstein

Composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, writer — Leonard Bernstein’s talents were limitless. On March 10 Lyric will concentrate on Bernstein the composer in an extraordinary concert as our contribution to the Bernstein Centennial Year. Featured artists will be Kate BaldwinSusan Graham, and Nathan Gunn, with David Chase conducting the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Bernstein’s achievements, says Chase, remind us of “the entire point of making music. Our job as artists is to communicate, and what Bernstein did perhaps better than anyone in the 20th century is communicate the power and the passion and the storytelling in music.” 

The concert’s first half is a single work, the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti (1952), for which Bernstein wrote his own libretto. It focuses on a troubled suburban couple who have lost their way in their marriage. Chase sees the pair “trying to find their way back to each other. It’s devastating, but not depressing, because they do finally choose to spend time together. Most of the piece shows them avoiding common ground, but at least in the end they’re making a step in the right direction.” 

Bernstein’s celebrated achievements on Broadway will be represented by Candide and the three musicals taking place in New York — On the TownWonderful Town, and West Side Story. There are also songs from a Broadway show we don’t know well, Peter Pan (not the famous musical that starred Mary Martin, but another version that premiered several years earlier). Two songs in the concert were cut from Peter Pan because the original performers couldn’t sing them: the exquisitely beautiful “Dream with Me,” meant for Wendy, and “Captain Hook’s Soliloquy” – a number, says Chase, that “because of its sense of irony, and because it’s utterly ridiculous, is a great show-off piece for a performer.” 

In hearing much of the Lyric concert’s repertoire, it strikes Chase that “Bernstein loved to think about Utopias.” In Trouble in Tahiti, the unhappy suburban wife is “searching for Utopia, for that garden, that ‘quiet place.’” The same longing is part of “Somewhere” from West Side Story. In “So Pretty,” a song written in opposition to the Vietnam War, the text is essentially saying, “Why can’t we have peace?”

Another lesser-known song is the deeply moving “To What You Said.” It’s a setting of an unpublished Walt Whitman poem. “What makes it interesting,” says Chase, “is that it’s a conversation with a lover about how they can’t show their relationship. It so captures Bernstein and the struggle he was having with his own sexuality. That’s a reason why the piece speaks so much.”

Above all, Chase loves “the muscularity of Bernstein’s music, the passion. With Bernstein you have to take an emotional journey. It’s exhilarating and powerful and strong.”

 Photos: Jack Mitchell, Anja Frers, Dario Acosta, Joshua Spencer