SSO celebrates Bernstein works

Jamie Bernstein
The Republican

SPRINGFIELD - Leonard Bernstein's daughter Jamie Bernstein put it as well as mere words could manage on Saturday evening, when she predicted that as history shines its light on 20th century music, it is her father's boundary-spanning, bridge-building compositions that people will "remember, sing, and love."

Maestro Kevin Rhodes, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and guest vocalists Michelle Areyzaga, Elizabeth Shames, Jeffrey Picon, Hugh Russell, and Paris Cheffer, provided the musical proof of her assertion to 2028 delighted concertgoers at Symphony Hall in "Bernstein on Broadway," a Jamie-Bernstein-narrated survey of her father's best-loved musical theater pieces.

First off, it must be noted that such a program as this all-Bernstein evening is one of the most difficult endeavors an orchestra can undertake, especially on a truncated pops rehearsal schedule.

The rhythms alone, infectious and ebullient as they may be, are mind-bending, and when pitches and a jazz or Latin "feel" are laid in, their execution becomes the province of only the finest and most experienced players, like those who sit in the Springfield Symphony chairs.

To pull all this together and then turn it on a dime to follow singers who are behind you and out of view must be a conductor's nightmare, but Rhodes did not appear to be suffering from any bad dreams.

In fact, he indicated that this all-Bernstein concert was a very special event for him personally, in light of the inspirational influence Bernstein had exerted on his own musical development.

Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from 'West Side Story'" was the pinnacle of Rhodes' and the Orchestra's music-making, and was hailed as such, being interrupted by applause and capped by a deeply appreciative partial standing ovation.

Rhodes launched the evening with a headlong romp through the "Candide" Overture, its cerebral circus music warming up the orchestra for the perplexing poly-rhythms and spiky melodies they would negotiate as the program progressed.

From her stage-right podium, Jamie Bernstein introduced the following numbers, providing occasional anecdotal context that inched open a window into her father's creative process.

Most interesting was an exchange of letters between her mother, the pianist and actress Felicia Montealegre (visiting her family in Chile), and Leonard Bernstein (at home in New York and Washington D.C.) in the weeks leading up to the premiere of "West Side Story."

The letters documented the fence that Bernstein straddled in his musical theater, recounting his battles over the critic-puzzling eclecticism of his composition.

Mezzo-soprano and Longmeadow native Elizabeth Shammash, in her first performance with her "hometown" orchestra, delighted the audience with her warm, velvety, and poignant rendition of "Somewhere," and her hilarious antics as Hildy from the taxi number (a.k.a. "Come Up To My Place") from "On the Town" and the "Swing" number from "Wonderful Town."

Baritone Hugh Russell lit up the stage with his full-on, lustily sung characterizations of Gaby ("Lonely Town"), and Wreck ("Pass the Football"). Soprano Michelle Areyzaga charmed with "A Little Bit In Love" and delivered the Maria music from West Side Story with sweet intensity.

Tenor Jeffrey Picon excelled as Candide and wielded a warm, strong middle and high voice, but the tenor-unfriendly low Bs in Tony's "West Side Story" music eluded him by the end of the night. Baritone Paris Cheffer rounded out the vocal forces for the concert-closing "Tonight" Quintet.

The engagement of such fine singers in programs like this is yet another sign that Bernstein's Broadway music is attaining the respect it richly deserves....