Bernstein: Stage and Screen – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Conductor: John Wilson

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Although born in Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein will always be linked with New York: his tenure as music director at the New York Philharmonic and his music inspired by the city: On The Town,Wonderful Town, West Side Story, the score to On The Waterfront all reinforce that link. As soon as one hears his jazzy lines and strident brass one is transported to the concrete canyons and docks of New York; for those of a certain age, one’s mental image of New York inevitably has a Bernstein soundtrack. So it is not unexpected that much of this evening’s concert celebrating Bernstein’s music written for stage and screen has a New York focus.

We hear the sass of its inhabitants in I Can Cook Too from On The Town (In which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) also proves that, under the baton of John Wilson, it can really swing) and 100 Easy Ways To Lose A Man from Wonderful Town (sounding to modern ears like an early paean to feminism) both sung by Kim Criswell, as well as the almost naïve wide-eyed wonder of the sailors as they arrive for a day in wartime New York, NewYork. Julian Ovenden brings a doleful quality to A Little Bit In Love, hitting the listener’s emotions directly. And there’s more: the mixture of cultures in West Side Story’s Dance at the Gym – a tour de force for the CBSO as it switches from style to style as the two warring factions throw down the gauntlet – is pure magic while Gee, Officer Krupke (featuring the vocal talents of Matthew Seadon-Young, David Seadon-Young, Nadim Namaan and Jack North) gives some light relief and really lets the singers have fun. Bernstein’s suite from the film On The Waterfront closes the first half and is perfection from start to finish as it outlines the story in music.

Of course, New York wasn’t Bernstein’s sole inspiration. He wanted to try everything once and so wrote, for example, the opera, Candide. And it is in these pieces, as well as elsewhere, that one appreciates the performing and acting backgrounds of the singers chosen for tonight as songs are not merely sung but performed wholeheartedly and in character. Criswell demonstrates her range in I Am Easily Assimilated, while Scarlett Strallen impresses with the quality of her voice and acting in Glitter And Be Gay from Candide and Dream With Me from the original music for Peter Pan.

The CBSO is joined onstage by University of Birmingham Voices, which provides choral back up, for example, during The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March – a stirring martial piece contrasted rather beautifully with the more banal food-based lyrics.

What is noticeable is just how funky Bernstein’s music sounds, even today; much of this evening’s music was written in the 1940s and 1950s but still sounds fresh. Wilson conducts with energy and a clear affection for the music; in return, the CBSO is full of smiles and obviously having a ball with Bernstein’s scores. A pre-show discussion with Wilson means that those arriving just for the concert miss out on Wilson’s thoughts on Bernstein, his music and tonight’s selection. It might have been good to hear some of that commentary during the concert itself; nevertheless, this is a supremely well-constructed concert and a fitting tribute to the man and his music.

Reviewed on 24 January 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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