Last night the RCM celebrated the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth with a suitably themed concert at Koerner Hall. The first half consisted of a performance of all the Anniversaries. These are short piano pieces; only a minute or two long, that Bernstein composed late at night. Each is dedicated to a friend or family member and many were reused later in longer works. There are somewhere between 20 and 30 of them and last night they were played in sets of three, four or five with introductions before each set by the composer’s eldest daughter Jamie complete with photos etc. The playing by Sebastian Knauer was idiomatic, virtuosic and sensitive. The introductions were informative, engaging and mercifully short. The music covered a vast range of moods and styles though all of it very Bernstein; that is to say tonal and obviously American. I was particularly struck by the brooding piece he wrote for his younger daughter some years after the death of her mother and by the earlier piece, dedicated to his wife Felicia Montealegre, that had Copland all over it and was none the worse for that. It was actually a rather brilliant way to showcase the man in a 45 minute or so concert segment.
After the break we got Kaufmann’s String Quartet No. 11. Walter Kaufmann was ethnically German and born in Karlsbad. He (wisely) chose to leave Czechoslovakia after the Nazi takeover and settled initially in Bombay (as then was) where he acquired an interest in Hindustani classical music before moving on to Canada and ultimately the US. The quartet premiered in Bombay and likely hasn’t been played since, until last night. It’s a brooding and perhaps somewhat bloodless piece, at least for three movements. The influences seemed to me more Jewish (oddly, as despite the name, Kaufmann wasn’t) and Central European rather than Indian. It culminates with a final movement marked “Allegro barbarico” where the mood changes abruptly into something appropriately savage. The piece was extremely well played by members of the ARC Ensemble; Erika Raum and Marie Bédard (violins), Steven Dann (viola) and Julie Hereish (cello).
The finale saw the quartet joined by Sebastian Knauer and by Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet) to form a backing band for Wallis Giunta who gave us eight well known songs from various Bernstein musical works in arrangements by Peter Tiefenbach. The singing was as glitzy as her dress, which was quite the shiniest I have seen in a while. It’s lovely to hear this music sung unamplified by someone who is totally at home with the style and has a voice that means she doesn’t have to “belt”. She’s a great mover too! I think my favourite was a wonderfully accented I am Easily Assimilated from Candide but really the whole set was ear and eye candy of the highest class. The ensemble too was splendidly idiomatic and totally into the spirit of the thing.
And in a weird little personal note, as I was settling into my seat after the interval, a rather puzzled looking Jamie Bernstein appeared looking for her second half seat which appeared to be occupied. As it happened Katja was unwell and hadn’t been able to come so I was able to accommodate her with my spare seat! All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds…
Photo blagged from Wally’s Facebook