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Performances

Leonard Bernstein
09 Jul 2017

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Leonard Bernstein

 

Last Friday’s splendid Bernstein bonanza with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra will surely be one of this year’s festival highlights. Besides Bernstein’s soundtrack for the 1954 Marlon Brando movie On the Waterfront, there were extracts from Candide and West Side Story, and solos and duets from the musicals On The Town, Wonderful Town and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The first fearless bars of “New York, New York”, arranged as a duet for tenor Julian Ovenden and baritone Nadim Naaman, tipped the Amsterdam audience that it was in for an outsized musical theatre experience. One of the top orchestras in the world in bold, swinging mode and a deluxe quartet of entertainers – it’s a formula that could hardly go wrong. But it was conductor John Wilson, straight-backed and outwardly cool, who seamlessly piloted this evening of sass and glamour, repeating a similar success he had at the 2015 BBC Proms with his own band, the John Wilson Orchestra. With laconic gestures he kept rhythms clean and urgent and performed dynamic sorcery. Transformed into a super big band (with five percussionists!), the RCO never upstaged the singers. Scarlett Strallen’s vocally fragile lullaby from Peter Pan, “Dream With Me”, quivered on soft, lush strings. When Julian Ovenden sang an ardent yet intimate “Maria” from West Side Story, the musicians followed his lead, flooding the hall with sound as his shiny tenor opened up, and slinking to a whisper with his final, beautifully sustained piano.

On their own, the RCO turned the obligatory overture to the operetta Candide into a light and sparkly frolic. In the symphonic suite from On the Waterfront Wilson hammered out the climaxes with accurate savagery.  The elegiac solo themes rang out with primeval beauty, the horn solo, placed offstage, particularly haunting. Heard live, the piece reveals its debt to the rhythmic structure of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but also Bernstein’s quintessentially American originality.  The orchestra visibly enjoyed the lively musical numbers. When it was their turn to play “The Dance At the Gym” from West Side Story several orchestra members rocked uninhibitedly to the infectious mambo and cha-cha beats. Every deserving musical score should get such a 24-carat orchestral treatment once in a while. The vocal performances, varied in mood and style, were just as exhilarating. Nadim Naaman sang “Lonely Town” with winning melancholy. After her tentative lullaby, Scarlett Strallen was absolutely charming in “A Little Bit In Love”.  Her showpiece, “Glitter and Be Gay”, was a brilliant send-up of an operatic aria. She exaggerated coloratura notes with glottal chugs and crashed downward scales hilariously into a guttural chest register. Glittering of gown and voice, she securely pinned all the high C’s, D’s and E flats and earned herself a huge applause.

Contrasting with Strallen’s diamond-point vocalism, Kim Criswell lent her turbine-driven voice and huge personality to a gallery of feisty women. As touching as she was in the ballad “Take Care of This House”, from Bernstein’s last composition for Broadway (and famous flop), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it was her pizzazz in assertive, jazzy numbers that set the stage on fire. Both taxi driver Hildy’s imperative seduction catalogue “I Can Cook Too” and writer Ruth’s sardonic “One Hundred Easy Ways To Lose A Man” were irresistibly vivid. With unerring phrasing and a chameleon-like persona Criswell draws characters so rich that she makes you forget you’re listening to musical numbers out of context. From the robust top notes to the chocolate bourbon chest voice, her instrument is a dazzling vocal carousel. Her shifts though the various musical idioms – jazz, musical, operetta ­– seemed effortless. An intuitive comic, she sang the Old Lady’s Tango from Candide with a hyperbolic Spanish accent and full, throbbing tone. In “Island Magic” from the opera Trouble in Tahiti Criswell’s arms were as eloquent as her voice as they traced Dinah’s mockery of, and submission to, escapist silver screen entertainment. Supported by the other soloists as the trio, she was utterly magnetic, painting the scenography with her hands and swaying to her mighty Polynesian vocalise.

Criswell and Strallen ended the official program with a bouncy “Wrong Note Rag”, but the delighted audience naturally wanted more.  They got two encores, the philosophical resignation quartet “Some Other Time” from On The Town and the “Tonight” quintet from West Side Story as a quartet. “Anita’s gonna get her kicks tonight”, sang Criswell. And she was not the only one who got them.

Jenny Camilleri


Performance information:

Kim Criswell, soprano; Scarlett Strallen, soprano; Julian Ovenden, tenor; Nadim Naaman, baritone. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Conductor: John Wilson. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Friday, 7th July 2017.

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