Not being familiar with Michael Tilson Thomas, Dawn Upshaw, Thomas Hampson, or any of the players associated with the Carnegie Hall Opening Night 2008 cast (aside from Yo-Yo Ma, for no reason other than his eccentric name), I can say I was pleasantly surprised as I found myself tapping and swaying my chair in time with their performances of Leonard Bernstein.
Thomas and company succeed in transferring Bernstein’s work into grandiose, sailing compositions fit for orchestral performance all while maintaining the thematic playfulness associated with the originals. This is especially true for the pieces featuring singers that actually got to work with Bernstein, each victorious in providing their own unique flare to the tribute. Christine Ebersole contributes bombastic, bouncy vocals to her war-time ode to womanhood, “I Can Cook Too” from On The Town, and Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Hampson lend their operatic voices to their respective pieces.
The music itself, provided by the San Francisco Symphony, sets the tone and creates the driving force that distances Thomas’ interpretation from the Bernstein originals. The percussion section is especially poignant here with their echoing thumps cutting above the rest. Yo-Yo Ma, who has been performing the music of Bernstein for 15 years, reminds us that we are witnessing a symphony and not a Broadway musical with his somber performance of “Meditation No. 1” from Mass. The look of precision on his face and in his hands moving around the cello fret brings down the tempo of an otherwise romping performance, but to an effective degree as it provides the viewer with a glimpse into the shear virtuosity of Bernstein’s work.
“Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story closes out the program and the five drama and vocal arts students from The Julliard School leave us with a warm lasting impression. They jaunt around stage, sitting on one another’s shoulders and impersonating mothers, police officers and psychiatrists to tell the story of a troubled youth. Their vibrancy and vocal buoyancy provide just another layer to the brilliance that is Bernstein.
The PBS program itself really benefits from the interviews between Thomas and the featured guests that open five of the seven performances. They tell the history of the music and allow the participants to converse over Bernstein, providing visual evidence of just how inspired they are by this man’s work. One particular conversation between Thomas and Jamie Bernstein, Leonard’s daughter, is especially touching as they go back-and-forth gushing over Bernstein’s incorporation of Latin flavor.