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Austin Symphony’s Happy Birthday, Lenny

Robert Faires – The Chronicle

October 26, 2018

In its concert celebrating Bernstein, the ASO shows the composer giving his all in even the briefest of works

Even when Leonard Bernstein was small, he was big.

That’s what you heard again and again in the Austin Symphony’s centenary celebration of the beloved, revered, and definitely larger-than-life American composer. The program chosen by ASO Music Director Peter Bay favored Bernstein in small doses – selections from his musicals performed individually or stitched into suites, the Divertimento for Orchestra, composed of eight distinct movements – so we were never exposed to a single musical idea for more than two or three minutes. But, oh, in those two or three minutes, Bernstein never failed to pack the monumental feeling or full orchestral punch of a symphony, an oratorio, an opera. Violins would swell into huge waves of yearning, horns would blast declarations of triumph, timpani would thunder doomsday – sometimes in the same brief burst of music. Each selection was like being whirled around the world in 120 seconds, as if Bernstein couldn’t resist showing us everything there was to see, no matter how little time he had.

Well, Lenny was a man of the theatre, and that may have contributed to his flair for the dramatic – or at least his ability to be expansive and expressive in compact compositions. Certainly, his work for Broadway – represented here by a suite from Candide, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and four songs from On the Town – trained Bernstein in the necessity of completing a musical thought in moments. And you could hear it right away, in the suite from Candide as arranged by Charlie Harmon; the first tune, “You Were Dead, You Know,” opened with two reeds in a tentative call-and-response, accelerated into a sweeping swell of romance from the full orchestra, pulled back to a bit more hesitation (led by skeptical horns), and then closed in an even stronger orchestral flourish of romantic glory. It all clocked in under two minutes, then we were waltzed into Paris with another tune that danced through conflicting feelings, softness and loudness, and the feel of having taken a grand tour. And so we traveled, much like Candide himself, through wildly different realms. The beauty of ASO’s program, moving through a show’s worth of Bernstein songs in just about 20 minutes each, was experiencing the richness and breadth and variety of his musical vocabulary so quickly: unabashedly romantic, playful, forceful, and heroic.

Peter Bay is not a big man, not like Bernstein was. But ASO’s soft-spoken conductor has always been inspired by Bernstein – it was seeing Lenny on TV when Bay was a boy that led him to pick up the baton – and throughout this concert, he was clearly striving to channel Bernstein’s bigness. It began slowly with Candide, as Harmon’s suite leans into the score’s lyricism, and Bay kept to a leisurely tempo, accentuating the dreaminess of the “Eldorado” melody and the wavelike rolling of the strings on “I Am Easily Assimilated.” But he built “Make Your Garden Grow” from the reverence of a procession down a cathedral aisle to a conclusion so hymnlike and majestic, it drew tears.

With each successive work, Bay and the orchestra grew more invested in the music and just grew – in sound, in feeling, in intensity. They leapt into the Divertimento – a mélange of musical styles, with starring solos for everything from violin and cello to piccolo and wood block – with a fittingly mischievous spirit and grew progressively bolder until they ended the eighth movement sounding like a drunken circus band. When they hit West Side Story’s Symphonic Dances, the musicians were snapping fingers and giving full-throated shouts of “Mambo!” as Bay danced on the podium with infectious vigor. They were just the size they needed to be. In an evening of small works, the ASO delivered big pleasures.