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Stephen Sondheim, Jessye Norman and a "Mount Rushmore of Music" Celebrate Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Gala

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Apr 29, 2014 02:48 PM EDT

The New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) spring gala last night celebrated the life and career of Leonard Bernstein with song and reminiscence at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Though the conductor, composer and educator died at 72 in 1990, a quarter-century later classical music and theater continue to feel his impact.

Host Jessye Norman set an elegant tone for "Remembering Lenny" with her introductions, but moments of seriousness and levity alternated through the evening. Among the friends of NYFOS packing the concert hall was Barbara Cook, the musical theater and cabaret legend who originated the role of Cunegonde in Bernstein's Candide in 1956. "People don't talk about how sexy he was," Cook said before singing "Some Other Time" from On the Town. "Even his conducting was sexy."

His music sure could be. My own introduction to Leonard Bernstein came through playing the French horn in a suite of music from Candide in junior high school wind ensemble, and it has always stuck with me even though I've never seen a production of the show. I suppose I must have seen or heard West Side Story too by the time I got to college, and that's where I had my closest encounter with the Bernstein phenomenon. By pure chance I and the composer's daughter Nina were "lab partners" in a college course I thought of as "astronomy for poets." I place "lab partners" in quotes because there isn't a lot of laboratory action in astronomy, so Nina and I didn't get to know each other at all well and I'm sure she doesn't remember me, but I'll never forget it.

Towards the end of the evening the biggest attraction took the stage: Stephen Sondheim, leading Nina and "Lenny"'s other two kids, Alexander and Jamie, in "The Saga of Lenny," a parody version of "The Saga of Jenny" by Kurt Weill. Sondheim had replaced Ira Gershwin's original lyrics with words of his own about Leonard Bernstein's remarkable polymathic interests and abilities, and the quartet sang the ditty with down-home spirit. That casual atmosphere extended over the whole evening. Despite the sartorial finery of some of those in attendance, the scene felt like a big family gathering.

This "family" was gathering around the piano, of course – actually two pianos, from which NYFOS Artistic Directors Steven Blier and Michael Barrett accompanied the singers. NYFOS and Blier and Barrett had long associations with Bernstein. Barrett served as the composer's assistant conductor for almost a decade. NYFOS's recording of song cycle Arias and Barcarolles earned Grammy Awards for both group and composer. The organization still lists Bernstein as its "Founding Advisor."

On hand to reminisce as well were Phyllis Newman, Matthew Epstein, and Marilyn Horne. The latter recalled giving "Lenny" his B12 shots and being called the "c" word by him during a Carmen rehearsal (the word not being "Carmen"). Indeed the many sides of the man appeared in the recollections of the assembled company.

The performers included Judy Kaye, who has had a long association with Bernstein's music, including roles in On the Town and Trouble in Tahiti, and the recording of the Grammy-winning Arias and Barcarolles. Last night Kaye teamed up with Kurt Ollmann, also a long-time member of the inner circle, on the remarkable "Love Duet" from Arias and Barcarolles. Ollman is associated with another of Bernstein's many Grammys, having appeared on the 1992 Best Classical Album Grammy winner, a recording of Candide with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Another duet, the archly funny "We Are Women" from Candide, with lyrics by Bernstein himself, teamed mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen with Lauren Worsham, who just this morning received a Tony nomination for her performance in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.

And another prominent young soprano, Julia Bullock, closed the proceedings with an entrancing and powerful rendition of "Somewhere." "There's a place for us…" Ah, those unforgettable first three notes. Even New York City's newer subway trains play those three notes when they start to move. (Listen for it, I'm not kidding.) Bullock will be featured on the upcoming concert version of West Side Story with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas. I can't wait.

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TagsLeonard Bernstein, New York Festival of Song, Barbara Cook, Lauren Worsham, Jessye Norman, Marilyn Horne, Stephen Sondheim