CAMBRIDGE — One of the pleasures of the big round-numbered anniversary tributes around which the classical world’s calendars tend to revolve is the way concentrated programming can point up worthy works by a composer typically relegated to the margins. Thursday’s performance at Longy School of Music of Bard College — the first of two nights honoring the Leonard Bernstein centennial — was a case in point. One couple seated near me kept up a running “whispered” dialogue between each piece, the gist of which was how delightfully fresh the entire program seemed to be. I couldn’t agree more.
The night was titled “A Private Audience” and its first half was devoted to a selection of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries” for solo piano. These are small musical portraits, no more than a few minutes each, dedicated to friends and fellow travelers over the course of Bernstein’s virtuosically eventful life. The composer’s elder daughter, Jamie Bernstein, was present as narrator for this work, introducing each tribute with a salutary blend of familial warmth and sharp-eyed insight. The interweaving of her stories, illustrated with projected family photos, and the music itself — laid out with uncommon grace by pianist Spencer Myer — brought this first half of the concert a rare sense of intimacy. It felt less like a buttoned-down tribute to a classical icon than an evening in his own living room, gathered around the piano.
Arnold Schoenberg once wrote that “the portrait need not resemble the model, only the artist.” Happily, Bernstein takes a rather different tack in his “Anniversaries.” Each is wonderfully distinctive, a life or a relationship in miniature, lean yet affectionately sketched, and alive with still-pulsing memories. Among the figures recalled on Thursday night were his friend and mentor Aaron Copland (sounding wise and rather French); Bernstein’s sister, Shirley (mercurial, skittering); his wife, Felicia Montealegre (touchingly wistful, with a note of rue); Helen Coates, his childhood piano teacher who became his personal secretary (now serene, now motoric, now chiding with a smile); the composer Lukas Foss (urbane and jaunty); and the great Stephen Sondheim (lyrical, glowing). As Jamie Bernstein reminded the audience, melodies from several of these private tributes found their way into Bernstein’s formal works for the concert hall or theater. You could imagine Lenny's retort: Why waste a good tune!
The composer’s capacious final song-cycle “Arias and Barcarolles” made up the second half of the program, and was another apt choice for an evening focused on the private Bernstein. Most of the words were written by the composer himself, many of the themes are autobiographical, the scenes are domestic, and the gamut of moods and styles reflects his own legendary range, from the arch or drolly plainspoken to the winged and luminous. Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy and baritone David Kravitz were in excellent form, finding a lived moment in each song, with vocalism that honored the music’s own genre hybridity without forcing it unduly toward the operatic. They were deftly partnered at every turn by pianists Wayman Chin and Brian Moll, both of whom at one point donned baseball caps, took up characters, and gamely joined the show.
A PRIVATE AUDIENCE: Longy Celebrates Bernstein’s Centennial
At Longy School of Music of Bard College, Thursday nightJeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.