Bernstein at 100 is celebrated by Boulder Phil and colleagues

West Side Story in Concert is sold out, but Monday’s tribute concert is not

By Peter Alexander April 20 at 4:30 p.m.

Leonard Bernstein has become the singular enduring icon of American concert music.

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Leonard Bernstein

His Broadway hit West Side Story, his leadership of the New York Philharmonic, his televised music education programs, his membership in the jet-set glitterati of the arts world, his famous performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on the site of the fallen Berlin wall—these made him the most recognizable classical musician in the world. As such, he was one of the most influential cultural figures of his time.

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Michael Butterman

“Composer, conductor, pianist, educator, advocate, communicator: he could do it all,” says Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Philharmonic. “I would say he was one of the most significant figures in 20th-century music, period.”

The 100thanniversary of Bernstein’s birth arrives in August of this year, and his centennial is being celebrated by virtually every orchestra in the country. That includes the Boulder Phil, whose sold-out concert performance of West Side Story leads local celebrations.

While that performance has gotten the most attention, another, more intimate concert will take place Monday evening that explores some lesser known corners of Bernstein’s creativity (7 p.m. April 23 in Boulder’s Jewish Community Center).

“Bernstein at 100: Leonard Bernstein in Concert” was put together by Eve Orenstein, the Phil’s director of development. Wanting to bring the larger community into the celebration, she contacted local musical organizations and musicians, assembling a program of solo and duo performances that will also include spoken tributes to Bernstein by Butterman, pianist Andrew Cooperstock from the CU College of Music, and Kathryn Bernheim, cultural arts director of the JCC.

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Charles Wetherbee

Two of the Phil’s musicians will perform: concertmaster Charles Wetherbee will play an arrangement of “Somewhere” from West Side Story and clarinetist Stephanie Zelnick will perform Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Both will collaborate with Cooperstock, who has recorded Bernstein’s complete solo piano music. Cooperstock will also play two shorter solo pieces.

Tenor Eapen Leubner will perform “Maria” from West Side Story and “Two Love Songs on Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke” with pianist Mac Merchant. Also performing with Merchant, vocalist Faye Nepon will sing “So Pretty,” and “Lucky to be Me” from On the Town; and soprano Rose Sawvel will sing the “Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass, “La Bonne Cuisine,” and the showpiece “Glitter and be Gay” from Candide.

This diverse program ranges from the serious (Clarinet Sonata) to the more humorous (“La Bonne Cuisine”) to pure entertainment (“Glitter and be Gay”). As such, it complements the familiar West Side Story and gives audiences a chance to expand their musical horizons—which was the constant goal of Bernstein’s own teaching.

The performance of West Side Story itself is noteworthy. For one thing, the fact that it sold out ten days in advance shows both the draw of Bernstein’s show, some 61 years after its premiere in 1957, and the success of the Phil’s programming for the Boulder community. There have been a few sellouts in recent years, but none as far as 10 days in advance.

It is also noteworthy that the Boulder Phil is one of the first, if not the first regional orchestra to present West Side Story in concert. The Bernstein estate had not permitted concert performances until 2014, when conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony received their consent. Since then several orchestras have done the concert version, although it remains more popular to perform the music live with the 1961 film.

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Robert Neu

For Saturday’s performance, the orchestra will be seated on stage and the actors will be limited to the front apron and a single raised platform behind the players. In a score as complex as West Side Story, this could create challenges keeping orchestra and singers together, but stage director Robert Neu is not particularly worried.

“I’ve done a ton of concert performances of operas,” he says. “I’ve found two things. One is that there are plenty of easy ways to have it staged that somebody’s near the conductor and out of the corner of the eye catch a beat. And I’ve found that the force of that many musicians, the energy on stage, you can tell what’s happening behind you.”

A larger issue for Neu is that dancing, which creates so much energy, is only allowed in fully-staged productions. For concert performances the use of any choreography is forbidden.

“The hardest thing about semi-staging this piece is that the dancing is so iconic and we’re not doing any dancing at all,” Neu says. “The dance music is so descriptive that if you set up the action before and after satisfactorily, the music helps to tell the story. (The action) is told by the music in such a specific way that you can still follow the story.”

West Side Story has become so familiar that it is easy to overlook how revolutionary it was in 1957. “I’m reminded of how tightly constructed it is, the way that themes are introduced at various times in a very subtle and foreshadowing, or backward looking, way,” Butterman says. “This is the sort of thing that opera composers do all the time, but not as often encountered in Broadway musicals.”

The complexity of the music was particularly startling in 1957, when most musicals did not have complicated ensembles like “Tonight,” or quite such virtuosic orchestral lead parts. “It was a genre-changing piece,” Neu says. “I would love to have been there in 1957 at that first orchestra read, when the principal trumpet and the percussionist were first seeing the parts, going, ‘say what?’”

The complexity and difficulty of the music is still a challenge, 61 years later. The Boulder Phil will bring in a few brass players who are specialists in the jazz-inflected style of the score. “Some of the brass playing is incredibly virtuosic and very, very, much like a big band,” Butterman says. “In spite of the fact that the tunes are familiar, it’s complex. It’s difficult, it’s relentless.”

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Leonard Bernstein

Amidst all the celebration, we should remember that Bernstein’s impact continues today, present in much of the musical activity around us. Butterman talks about having conducted the Rochester Philharmonic, an orchestra that Bernstein once led, and having found a lingering “ethos that Bernstein then displayed when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic.”

I shook Bernstein’s hand and collected his autograph once when I was in high school. Many of us in the musical world had such brief or tangential contacts with him. But his influence on our national musical life is far greater than any individual’s near or remote degree of separation. “Because of the breadth of what he did, he became larger than life,” Butterman says.

“He left an amazing legacy for anyone involved in orchestral music. It’s important to celebrate his music, which is the most long-lasting legacy he left to the world, at the same time remembering the work he did to bring classical music to as many people as possible. I see him as an inspiration.”

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Bernstein at 100: Leonard Bernstein Tribute Concert
Presented by the Boulder Philharmonic with musicians from CU College of Music, Central City Opera, Colorado Music Festival, and Opera Fort Collins

7 p.m. Monday, April 23
Levin Hall of the Boulder Jewish Community Center, 6007 Oreg Ave, Boulder

Tickets

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West Side Story in Concert: SOLD OUT
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman conductor, and Robert Neu, stage director
In collaboration with Central City Opera

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28
Macky Auditorium

NOTE: Corrected for typos 4/20/18

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Boulder Phil sells out West Side Story 10 days in advance

Orchestra ends 60th-anniversary season on a high April 28

By Peter Alexander April 18 at 10:40 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic has announced that their concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story on Saturday, April 28, has sold out 10 days in advance.

westsidestoryThe orchestra’s 60th-anniversary season has already been a success at the box office, leading to a modest expansion of next year’s season. When announcing the 2018–19 season April 6, Katherine Lehman, the Boulder Phil’s executive director, observed that “We have been extremely successful with ticket sales, and we’re ending the year particularly well this year.”

The sellout of West Side Story adds success to success. “This is thrilling news for us,” Lehman says today. “We can’t imagine a better way to bring our 60th-anniversary season to a close than to share West Side Story with a sell-out crowd!”

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Michael Butterman will conduct the sold-out West Side Story in Concert with the Boulder Phil

Boulder Phil has sold out a few performance in Macky Auditorium in recent years. Besides the Sunday Nutcracker performances with Boulder Ballet, these include several performances with Cirque de la Symphonie. Another sellout was the Boulder performance of the “Nature and Music” concert in March, 2017, that was subsequently performed in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Performances by the orchestra with ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukaro in 2017 and violinist Sarah Chang in 2013 both sold out the day of the performance. The current production of West Side Story marks the first time in recent years that Boulder Phil has sold out a concert 10 days in advance.

The performance, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, is a presentation of the Boulder Phil in collaboration with Central City Opera. Boulder Phil music director Michael Butterman is conducting, with stage direction by Robert Neu, and a cast selected in audition by Butterman, Neu, and Central City Opera artistic director Pelham Pearce. The orchestra will be seated onstage, with action occurring on the front apron of the stage, and on a platform erected behind one side of the orchestra.

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San Francisco Symphony: West Side Story in Concert (photo by Stefan Cohen)

A few years ago, this performance would not have been possible. It has been popular for many years for orchestras to perform live with a screening of the film, but rights were not given for concert performances until 2014, when the San Francisco Symphony gave the first live in concert performances. Their performance was subsequently released on CD.

There have a been a few other orchestras who have performed West Side Story in concert, but the Boulder Phil is one of the first, if not the first, regional orchestra to do so.

Boulder Phil will present three works in one

Performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion will be a collaboration with several organizations

By Peter Alexander

J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is at least three different works.

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Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic. Photo by Glenn Ross.

It is a sacred work, written and performed in Bach’s lifetime as part of Good Friday services at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It is a concert work that has been performed apart from religious services for most of the 266 years since Bach’s death. And it is a dramatic work, the closest Bach came to writing an opera.

This weekend’s performances by the Boulder Philharmonic, a semi-staged production presented in conjunction with the Boulder Bach Festival, Central City Opera, the CU College of Music and the Boulder Children’s Chorale, will definitely tilt toward the third option. (Performances will be at 7 p.m. Saturday in Macky Auditorium, with supertitles projected over the stage; and at 2 p.m. Sunday in Denver’s Central Presbyterian Church.)

Bach’s score unfolds on different levels: There is a tenor singing the Biblical narration, a baritone singing the words of Jesus, and individuals from the chorus who sing the words of other characters named by St. Matthew; there is a double chorus, which sings large choral movements that introduce and close the work, the words of the crowd, and Lutheran chorales that symbolically represent the reaction of the congregation; and there are aria soloists who sing non-Biblical poetic texts that reflect upon the story.

To these musical events, this performance will add an onstage dramatization, but not in a literal way. “There’s very little that’s literal action,” stage director Robert Neu says. “What we’re trying to do is take it a little bit out of the realm of a traditional concert performance. The piece is very operatic in the way it’s shaped, it’s very dramatic, but given the nature of the piece, you can’t be overly literal about it.”

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Bach’s St. Matthew Passion
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, music director
A semi-stage production with
Central City Opera, Robert Neu, stage director
Boulder Bach Festival chorus, Zachary Carrettin, artistic director
The University of Colorado, Boulder, University Singers and University Choir, Gregory Gentry, chorus master
Boulder Children’s Chorale, Kate Klotz, artistic director
Vocal soloists

7 p.m. Saturday, April 23 [Note early starting time]
Macky Auditorium, Boulder
Preceded by pre-performance discussion, 6 p.m.

2 p.m. Sunday, April 24
Central Presbyterian Church, Denver

Tickets