This year, it is 100 years since the birth of the great American composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, and his life and work is being celebrated all over the world. The RSNO have decided to dedicate tonight’s concert to him as a memorial to his work. They have made a great choice of conductor: a fast-rising young American, Cristian Măcelaru, who is clearly very familiar with Bernstein’s work. He introduces the concert, speaking not only of Bernstein’s music, but of his commitment to both social justice and peace, something, he says, we need to be reminded of.
The concert begins with Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, composed for Chichester Cathedral in 1965. It is a setting of a suite of psalms sung in Hebrew, but is very contemporary, and indeed has a touch of West Side Story to it in some places. Singing in Hebrew is quite a challenge, but one which the 100-strong RSNO Chorus, under the direction of Gregory Batsleer, respond to well. There is a superb young treble part, which is sung by twelve year old Andrew Watt.
The second work in the first half of the concert is George Gershwin’s wonderful Rhapsody in Blue, which perfectly illustrates one of Bernstein’s main achievements, to link the world of classical music to jazz and popular music. The pianist is the brilliant young American, George Li, who is already an international star and has played at the White House for Barack Obama. He plays the jazz rhythms of Gershwin wonderfully, and the orchestra, under the lively conducting of Măcelaru, respond well. It gets a great response from the very full Usher Hall, and Li gives us a very gentle melodic encore by Gluck.
The second half of the concert begins with perhaps Bernstein’s most famous work, West Side Story, which has been produced in theatres, on film, and on record, many times since it first opened in 1957. Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Jerome Robbins (choreography), called it a “social music drama”, and it takes the story of Romeo and Juliet and sets it in the inner city slums of New York.
Bernstein composed his suite of Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in 1961, and he was very keen to emphasise that dance, as well as song, told the story of the work. The music begins with the melody from the song Maria, but moves quickly onto the frantic music depicting the battle between the Jets and the Sharks, and it is perhaps the only time you will hear the musicians of the RSNO singing, when they chant “Mambo”! A solo flute ends the work with the tune of I have a love, and the audience gives it a tumultuous response.
The concert concludes with a work that illustrates Bernstein’s commitment to American classical music, Samuel Barber’s Symphony No 1. Despite being written in 1936, Barber refused to succumb to modernism, and he produced a work that was more like Sibelius than contemporary composers such as Ligeti. The work, under the skilled baton of Măcelaru, flows smoothly through its four movements, and brings a melodic end to a memorable evening. Bernstein’s birthday is well remembered, and we will still be recalling his music, and feeling his impact, for many years to come.