The California Philharmonic Orchestra knows how to throw a birthday party!

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Beethoven Celebrates Bernstein's 100th Birthday
By George van Wagner

This year marks the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, and Maestro Victor Vener used the full facility of the California Philharmonic Orchestra to mark the occasion as a wonderful present for aficionados of this uniquely American composer. As if that weren’t sufficient, capping off the Disney Hall performance was a stunning rendition of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, featuring the 160-member Cal Phil chorale, filled out to 234 voices for the occasion.

In the maestro’s pre-performance remarks, Vener reflected on Bernstein’s early career and his burst of creativity during the mid- and late-1950s. It was during this period that Bernstein, seeking to redefine American musical theater, wrote some of the most memorable music to have graced the 20th-Century Broadway stage. Over a remarkably short period of time, he created scores for On the Town, West Side Story and a production that was to see no fewer than six different revisions between then and Bernstein’s death, Candide. This latter began life as a project of Bernstein and playwright Lillian Hellman intended as commentary on the aftermath of the McCarthy-ite purges that had recently taken place in the arts community.

The performance began with a masterful compilation of music from West Side Story, featuring Bernstein’s re-orchestration, in collaboration with colleagues Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, of pieces expanded from several of the dance music sections, which were strongly influenced by 1950’s New York jazz, originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins for the 1957 stage production. These dynamic numbers were contrasted with three of Bernstein's most unabashedly sentimental and lovely ballads from the score — “Maria,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and ”Tonight.” Featuring tenor Orson Van Gay II singing the part of Tony and soprano Emily Dyer singing the part of Maria, these heartfelt performances were both beautifully sung and strongly acted. Van Gay’s “Maria” was full of the joy and wonder of the discovery of unexpected love, and the pair’s “One Hand, One Heart” had some audience members visibly affected.

Moving to selections from Candide, the show that Bernstein kept returning to, over and over, Dyer accepted the challenge of the extremely difficult aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” a piece that requires the singer to hit three E-flats above high C. Her version was stellar, and she also capably worked both the pathos and humor of the song into the performance, playing off Maestro Vener at several points. Next, Mezzo Nandhani Maria Sinha perfectly mined the comic possibilities of “I Am So Easily Assimilated,” a song which plays with musical styles, pitting klezmer against tango. Sinha beautifully occupied the character of The Old Lady, with Maestro Vener making the wry observation that this may be the most thankless name for a major character in the history of musical theater. Van Gay, along with bass-baritone Cedric Berry, Gabriel Paredes and Johann Schram Reed joined the two sopranos onstage for “Make Our Garden Grow,” a song Bernstein felt was the best he ever wrote, and the finale of Candide.

After intermission, the second act opened with three of the dances from On the Town, a show that had originally been expanded from the Bernstein-composed, Jerome Robbins-choreographed ballet, Fancy Free. Bernstein always felt free to layer popular music with symphonic sophistication, and these dances — “The Great Lover,” the plaintive “Lonely Town,” and “Times Square:1944” — burst with the exuberance of the then 26-year old composer beginning to find his voice. Maestro Vener ably brought out all the energy and sizzle of The Big Apple of the 1940s, with “Times Square,” which contains the one song from On the Town that everyone knows — “New York, New York” — veritably exploding off the stage.

There’s not much to say about “The Ode To Joy,” the final movement of Beethoven’s majestic 9th Symphony that hasn’t already been said — the complexity and subtlety of the compositional techniques that tie it together into a glorious celebration, the sheer enormity of the expanded orchestration (as Maestro Vener pointed out in his pre-concert remarks, nobody before Beethoven was using four French Horn players, and using not only vocal soloists, but a full chorale, was shockingly new in 1824). The 160 members of the Cal Phil Chorale, under Choir Maestra Marya Basaraba, were joined by LA DAIKU, under the direction of Jeffrey Bernstein, as well as a group of high school singers from Orange County to make a chorale totaling 234 voices, joining Van Gay’s tenor, Dyer’s soprano, Sinha’s mezzo and Berry’s masterful bass-baritone for an all-out celebration of Beethoven’s musical setting of Schiller’s poem. It was a rousing and moving ending to an all-around excellent afternoon of music.

In a world where seemingly any conceivable piece of music can be streamed from your phone, wherever you may be at the time, it’s all too easy to lose track of the power and excitement that exists in a live musical performance. With Maestro Vener and the California Philharmonic Orchestra providing programs such as this, there is no excuse to not experience it for yourself firsthand.

California Philharmonic