Bernstein at 100: Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra presents a centennial tribute

A young Bernstein with two of his constant props: a score and a cigarette
My only memory of Leonard Bernstein in concert is oddly focused on the curtain calls at the end.
It was at the Meadow Brook Music Festival in suburban Detroit during what was probably his last tour with the New York Philharmonic in the frenetic but sadly declining years before his death in 1990.

After a program I've forgotten (except for his Overture to "Candide," throughout which he shimmied more than conducted), the celebrated maestro stepped off the podium and shuffled eagerly among music stands and chairs, hugging and kissing every member of the orchestra, all of them standing, some more comfortable than others with the extended public display of affection. ("Being kissed by him was like an assault by a sort of combination of sandpaper and sea anemones," the stage director and "Beyond the Fringe" co-creator Jonathan Miller once said.) The audience continued to applaud, probably sharing my amazement.

It's an indelible memory, and at the time I was caught between feeling he was overcome with love for the musicians and the less positive impression that he was really putting his stamp on them, signaling for one of the last times: "The New York Philharmonic is mine, mine, mine!"

The year has been rich in centennial tributes to Bernstein, a musical colossus who put his stamp on whatever he touched from mid-century almost until the new millennium. The conductor and educator roles had to die with him, though there is a rich legacy preserved on YouTube.  The composer can be well-represented, though, and that's of course how the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra paid tribute over the weekend.

A deft decision to revive Bernstein's 1951 chamber opera, "Trouble in Tahiti," paid off in the semi-staged production's second performance Sunday afternoon at the Schrott Center for the Arts. The work bears the sarcastic influence of Marc Blitzstein, a good friend of the composer whose stage works contain vivid critiques of American society. Bernstein works here to create an emphasis on the rosier possibilities of American life, at the outset of a decade that was indeed his, his, his — when he became a household name through televised Young People's Concerts, crowned as the Kennedy era dawned by "West Side Story" in 1961.

One failed marriage is the focus of "Trouble in Tahiti''s critique of American life in the 1950s; the satirical element is fleshed out in a vocal "jazz trio" that comments on the troubled couple and their outwardly comfortable lifestyle. In that respect, "Trouble in Tahiti" is like a more tuneful, more desperately wistful version of the story Richard Yates tells of marriage on the rocks in "Revolutionary Road." The 1950s, presumably the era alluded to when today's promises to "make America great again" are held up, was a time both hopeful and repressed. Prosperity and the sanctification of middle-class life comforted those in a position to enjoy the benefits, but high expectations were often undercut by private misery.

The Jazz Trio helps elevate Dinah's impression of the cheesy movie she just saw.
"Trouble in Tahiti" focuses on the dysfunctional marriage of Sam and Dinah in a well-to-do East Coast suburb. The characters are shallow, to be sure, as they are focused on themselves and seem clueless about what makes a marriage work; their only child, never seen and referred to distantly only as "Junior," suffers their neglect.

What makes the piece succeed is the bumptiousness, comic high spirits and deeply embedded pathos of Bernstein's score. As a result one finds Sam and Dinah's unhappiness moving despite not feeling much sympathy for them. Kara Cornell, soprano, and Christopher Burchett, baritone, poured considerable energy, high definition and vocal splendor into the roles.

There were times when their amplification seemed unnecessary, given the Schrott's excellent acoustics and the singers' operatically robust voices. On the whole, however, the microphones probably improved the balance with the onstage ICO. The Jazz Trio — soprano Vandi Enzor, tenor Andres Acosta, and baritone Thaddaeus Bourne — moved featly about the stage and sang in close-order drill like vocal Blue Angels.

Matthew Kraemer conducted the ICO's season-opening Bernstein tribute.
Matthew Kraemer conducted the performances, with stage direction by Richard J Roberts. As seen
Sunday (the 28th anniversary of Bernstein's death), the two must be credited for what struck me as a thoroughly integrated partnership of musical and theatrical panache. The marvelous inspirations of lighting designer Laura E. Glover completed the picture, which was properly ornate, amusing, and campy in the show's sixth of seven scenes, "Dinah at the Movies."

That lavish, flamboyant number — representing the wife's escape from her domestic concerns to a celluloid melodrama of the same title as Bernstein's opera — brought out Cornell's peak performance, just as Sam's proud solo in the gym, exulting in his trophy-winning performance in a handball tournament, represented the summit of Burchett's. The stubborn self-indulgence of both characters gives them a rush, but the finale holds out only a fragile prospect that their relationship will strengthen.

The concert opened with a peppy but measured "Candide" Overture, one of the great American symphonic gems of less than five minutes' duration. Thankfully, the piece was not taken insanely fast, so the fitness of the ensemble was showcased rather than stretched to the breaking point.

Lucian Plessner plays his arrangement of tunes from "West Side Story."
What followed was a Suite from "West Side Story," which remains Bernstein's most widely known achievement as a composer, as arranged by the guest soloist, Lucian Plessner, for guitar and chamber orchestra. Besides a drum set, the work is efficiently scored for strings and just three solo wind instruments: flute, trumpet and horn. Plessner and the orchestra worked smoothly together through a chronological selection of tunes from the classic show, going from "Cool," the finger-snapping gang self-assertion, through "Somewhere." The suite emphasizes the show's amiable side and heart-melting lyricism, which helped shed light on the foreground of "West Side Story" in the little-known "Trouble in Tahiti."

The German guitarist's appearance was in observance of the 30th anniversary of Indianapolis' Sister City relationship with Cologne, Germany. Also giving a sense of occasion to Sunday's concert was a proclamation by Mayor Joe Hogsett, delivered in person, of "Lucina Ball Moxley Day."
Mrs. Moxley, like Bernstein, is a centenarian — but a still-living one who was fortunately present to receive the honor.  She has long been known for her services to music as both pianist and philanthropist. A birthday reception in her honor followed the concert.


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