By John von Rhein
Just as no single area of musical endeavor was big enough for the larger-than-life talents and ambition of Leonard Bernstein, so too is no single Ravinia season big enough to represent America’s greatest musical figure in all his multifaceted glory.
Indeed, the floodtide of events with which Ravinia celebrated Bernstein’s 100th birthday in 2018 was only the beginning. The grand celebration continues for a second festival summer with nearly a dozen Bernstein-themed programs curated by the American conductor Marin Alsop, Bernstein’s final (and only female) protégé and one of the world’s most prominent champions of his music.
As composer, conductor, pianist, educator, television personality, advocate, social activist and cultural icon, Bernstein bestrode many worlds, many personae, many musical genres. His mastery in every realm was staggering. Ravinia 2019 is honoring the many Bernsteins in all three of its concert venues as well as in its newly constructed RaviniaMusicBox Experience Center.
The maestro, it is safe to assume, would have been delighted by the attention.
As Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman explains, “Marin and I had a hunch that last year’s centennial celebration would be big for Ravinia, and it was. We were always thinking of making this a multiyear celebration, and the excitement generated by our ‘Bernstein 100’ events told us we were headed in the right direction.”
For her part, Alsop says, “Welz believes Ravinia is a festival about all types of music, for all people. That [inclusiveness] also is what Bernstein stood for—the idea that you can cross over from serious to popular music, back and forth, seamlessly; that it’s all part of a single entity every audience member should be able to access.”
Bernstein, she points out, fiercely opposed the attempts of others to pigeonhole him or his music, which critics persisted in doing while he was alive (he died, at 72, in 1990). “I would say that every one of his popular pieces is very serious, and every one of his serious pieces is also popular,” Alsop observes.
If Ravinia’s 2018 centennial homage emphasized Bernstein’s works for the concert hall, the second edition pays extended homage to him as a composer for the theater. Understanding his theatricality is key to our understanding of Bernstein, given the fact that it coursed in his veins like red corpuscles, making him effectively the star player on his own stage. In fact, practically everything he composed, conducted, performed, authored, or broadcasted into America’s living rooms carried the smell of greasepaint—even if the music at hand had nothing to do with the theater.
Back by popular demand on July 20 will be Bernstein’s magnum opus, the 1971 theater piece Mass, featuring the same forces—more than 200 artists onstage—that made this unabashedly eclectic piece the cornerstone of last summer’s Bernstein bash. The roster includes the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vocality chorus and Chicago Children’s Choir, the Highland Park High School Marching Band, a 22-member “Street Chorus,” and baritone Paulo Szot (as the Celebrant), again under the direction of Alsop, who led last summer’s triumphant Ravinia and CSO premiere of Mass.
“We usually don’t encore anything at Ravinia, but Mass was such a success, on so many levels, that this felt like something special to make happen again, especially given its acclaim by our North Shore family,” says Kauffman. Alsop says she was greatly moved by the “extremely emotional response” of audience members and the CSO musicians alike to last summer’s rafter-raising performance of the work she emphatically believes is Bernstein’s “masterpiece.”
That said, Mass has long had its detractors, as well as its adherents, among the public and press. Alsop urges all who were leery about experiencing this joyous, sprawling theater piece last year to attend the reprise with open ears and mind. “Mass really has gotten better over time, with our greater and vaster experience of different types of music,” she says. “More importantly, I think the message”—the crisis of faith at the heart of the work—“is as relevant today as it was in 1971.”
Apart from Mass, no classical event of Ravinia 2019 will pack the Pavilion stage with more humanity than the July 26 performance of Gustav Mahler’s grandest work, Symphony No. 8 (the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”). The concert under Alsop’s baton will recall the pivotal role Bernstein played in launching the “Mahler boom” that secured the Austrian composer’s place in the postwar canon. Alongside the CSO and Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, and Chicago Children’s Choir will be eight solo vocalists: Angela Meade, Leah Crocetto, Jeanine De Bique, Michelle DeYoung, Kelley O’Connor, Joseph Kaiser, Ryan Speedo Green, and Paulo Szot.
The back-to-back programming of Mass and Mahler was deliberate. “I believe Mass was Bernstein’s Mahler Eight,” Alsop says. “Common to both pieces is a desire to answer the big existential question: ‘Why are we here?’ We are doing the works roughly a week apart, which hopefully will enable us to shed light on these pieces listeners perhaps have not considered before.”
Highlighting the August lineup will be Ravinia’s first full presentations of Bernstein’s music theater gems Candide (1956) and Trouble in Tahiti (1951).
Bernstein’s tune-laden, wryly satirical Broadway operetta Candide (whose sparkling overture remains a staple of the concert repertoire) will take the Pavilion stage on August 28 as performed by The Knights under their conductor, Eric Jacobsen. The production, which originated last summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival, will be staged by Alison Moritz, with choreography by John Heginbotham, a dancer formerly with the Mark Morris Dance Group. The cast will feature Miles Mykkanen in the title role, Sharleen Joynt as Cunegonde (who gets to chirp “Glitter and Be Gay”), and Evan Jones triple-cast as Voltaire, Pangloss, and Cacambo, with two alumni of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute vocal program rounding out the stars: Margaret Gawrysiak as the Old Lady and Baroness, and Alex Mansoori taking on all four of the Baron, Governor, Vanderdendur, and Ragotski.
The first and wittiest of Bernstein’s two operas, Trouble in Tahiti examines the unhappy marriage of a middle-aged couple, portrayed by Szot and soprano Patricia Racette, who reside in a suburb akin to Ravinia’s hometown of Highland Park (don’t miss the reference in the libretto!). Alsop will lead the pair, plus the “jazz trio” of RSMI vocal alumni Michelle Areyzaga, Nils Nilsen, and Nathaniel Olson and members of the Chicago Philharmonic, in two performances on the same day, August 22 (5:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.), in Ravinia’s Martin Theatre. “Paulo and Patricia had never worked together before they starred in Kurt Weill’s opera Street Scene last year in Madrid,” says Kauffman. “Their chemistry is fantastic, and they are thrilled to be reuniting at Ravinia.”
Also noteworthy is return to the Ravinia repertoire on June 20 of Songfest, Bernstein’s US Bicentennial commission, a cycle for six singers and orchestra based on texts by American poets ranging from Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This is one of the most important, indeed arresting, of Bernstein’s later concert works. Another six alumni from the RSMI vocal program will perform its 12 songs with the Caroga Arts Ensemble under the direction of Alexander Platt, who co-arranged the chamber version to be heard on this occasion. [Ravinia and Bernstein devotees will remember that this version was premiered at Ravinia in 2013.]
Bernstein’s signature masterpiece, the musical West Side Story, will arrive at Ravinia on July 12, with the CSO performing the score with a showing of the restored 1961 Best Picture Oscar winner, to be projected on screens in the Pavilion and on the Lawn. David Newman will conduct, just as when the movie last “played” Ravinia in 2014. Newman and the CSO also will provide the live accompaniment to a screening on August 9 of director Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. The 1954 film took home eight Oscars, including best actor for Marlon Brando, although Bernstein’s inspired score—his only fling with Tinseltown—lost out in the Best Soundtrack category to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for The High and the Mighty.
On July 27, Alsop will be joined by her good friend the author and broadcaster Jamie Bernstein—Leonard’s oldest child and author of last year’s absorbing, warts-and-all memoir Famous Father Girl—for “Leonard Bernstein: Man For All Music.” A compendium of stories, songs, and symphonic music will compose this CSO program of extracts from his broad repertoire, with soloists ranging from young instrumental virtuosi Ifetayo Ali-Landing and Harmony Zhu to Met star Isabel Leonard alongside Szot, DeYoung, and Nilsen.
In his capacity as America’s music teacher, Bernstein wanted nothing more than to gather as many people as possible under the big tent of music, to embrace music as a necessary part of their daily lives. The festival’s RaviniaMusicBox Experience Center, a major addition to the park scheduled to open on the North Lawn later this summer, promises to carry the maestro’s mission forward in the sylvan beauty of Ravinia.
How appropriate, then, that the Experience Center’s gallery space [supported by the Ravinia Associates Board] should be inaugurated with the Grammy Museum’s traveling Leonard Bernstein exhibit, which explores Bernstein’s enormous impact on the cultural life of his era. The exhibit, which is set to open July 23, will include video elements and interactive displays, along with his childhood piano and the desk at which he wrote West Side Story. Tickets will be free to concertgoers on a first-come basis.
“The video portion of the show includes Lenny’s family background, testimonials from other artists, Bernstein conducting, lots of really cool stuff,” Kauffman explains. “It’s one of the best Bernstein retrospectives I have seen.”
Even with this profusion of Bernsteiniana at Ravinia over these two summers, there is quite enough of the master’s music left over to comfortably stock future festival seasons. (Consider his “Age of Anxiety” and “Kaddish” Symphonies, the ballets Facsimile and Dybbuk, the musicals On the Town and Wonderful Town, and the opera A Quiet Place, not to mention more from Bernstein’s rich catalogue of songs for the musical theater and concert hall.)
Which is why Alsop and Kauffman consider the Bernstein celebration to be an open-ended project, possibly extending into the 2020 festival season and even beyond.
“Bernstein is the gift that keeps on giving,” says Alsop, with a smile.
For his part, Kauffman cites the best of all possible reasons for Ravinia to celebrate America’s greatest musical figure in perpetuity, if the festival chooses to do so.
“There was nobody like Lenny, and there won’t be anybody like him again,” he says. ▪
John von Rhein retired as classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune in July 2018, after more than 40 years in that position. He continues to write about music and performances on a freelance basis.