In 1971, John Mauceri, who was then a young conducting fellow at Tanglewood, met Leonard Bernstein. For the next 18 years, Mauceri worked with Bernstein on many projects, and conducted a number of Bernstein premieres around the world. This year is the hundredth anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, and, to honor the composer, Mauceri and Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) Executive Director Thor Steingraber chose a number of Bernstein’s theater pieces for the recent Bernstein on Stage concert. This was the first in a series of concerts and performances dedicated to the composer’s work that will be offered at VPAC this coming year.
The Bernstein on Stage offerings were an eclectic mix of his familiar works like On The Town, West Side Story and Candide, along with lesser known works like Trouble in Tahiti, Mass and his rare commercial flop, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Conducting the New West Symphony, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and the Arete Vocal Ensemble, along with soloists Casey Candebat, Davis Gaines, Suzanna Guzman and Celena Shafer, Mauceri interspersed the musical pieces with commentary about Bernstein’s career in theater, beginning in the 1940’s until his final stage work in 1976,
While it is always a treat to hear the favorites like “Maria,” “Tonight,” “Wrong Note Rag” and “Ohio,” it was especially rewarding to hear selections from Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s short, semi-autobiographical opera about a feuding couple in suburbia, or the “Simple Song” from Mass, which was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center. Another stirring and evocative piece was “To Make Us Proud” from his last show, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The soloists were universally solid, with Guzman delivering several spirited numbers, Shafer displaying vocal gymnastics in “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, Gaines performing several inspiring solos and Candebat tugging at the heartstrings with “Maria.” In addition to his always talented conducting, Mauceri’s commentary, sprinkled with personal touches and stories, rounded out an engaging and entertaining evening.