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Saturday, February 23 , 2019, 12:02 am | Fair 43º


Review: Santa Barbara Symphony Salutes Bernstein with All-American Tribute

The Santa Barbara Symphony has performed some dynamite concerts under the leadership of Music and Artistic Director Nir Kabaretti this season, but the "Bernstein & Americana" pair Feb. 17-18 at the Granada Theatre kicked up a particularly satisfying vibe that likely gave most in the audience a buzz for a couple of days.

The program primarily focused on a wide-ranging travelogue of the music of Leonard Bernstein in celebration of the composer’s 100th birthday. Also featured were works by American composers Aaron Copland and Santa Barbara’s Robin Frost. Pianist Natasha Kislenko, principal keyboardist with the symphony and a major musical presence in this community, performed the world premiere of Frost’s Piano Concerto, and symphony principals Jon Lewis on trumpet and Sarah Beck on English horn paired for Copland’s haunting Quiet City for Strings, Trumpet and English Horn.

Broadway soprano Lisa Vroman was the amiable guest soloist for the second half of the program. Together with the Santa Barbara Choral Society (under conductor JoAnne Wasserman), Vroman surveyed selected songs from Bernstein’s greatest musicals and his Mass. But the icing on the celebratory cake was saved for last.

Kabaretti kicked off the Saturday night concert with the overture to Bernstein’s whacky masterpiece and greatest musical theater flop, Candide. While the show itself is still problematic to produce successfully — L.A. Opera might have broken the curse recently with its highly acclaimed run — the music, all of it, has dazzled, like the jewels of one of Voltaire’s hapless heroines in the show, since its premiere in the mid-1950s. Like Wolfgang Mozart’s opera overtures, Candide’s has found a life of its own in the orchestral repertoire. Kabaretti and colleagues gave it a smoothly virtuoso reading.

With Lewis (trumpet) and Beck (English horn) on either side of the podium, Copland’s Quiet City unfolded its melancholic plaint with eloquent clarity. Disarming for its simplicity of line and narrative, Quiet City nevertheless makes tremendous demands on both soloists. The father of the American 20th century music brand, Copland’s mastery of orchestration and color are elegantly on display in this unusual marriage of dark English horn color and the much brighter, higher trumpet. A beautiful performance by all.

The world premiere of Frost’s Piano Concerto was in its way an homage to Bernstein, the concert’s birthday boy, who tirelessly sought out forgotten scores gathering dust in attics and brought them to the light of public performance. Frost’s concerto was composed in the early 1960s and has waited these long years to be heard. Kudos to the Santa Barbara Symphony for giving 87-year-young Frost, who was in the audience, an opportunity together with the rest of us to hear the piece. Kislenko, Kabaretti and the orchestra, including saxophonist Patrick Posey, whose solos informed Frost’s sonic journey, gave the romantic score with its sweeping cinematic scoring and feisty, cosmopolitan last section a first-class performance.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to the music of Bernstein and opened with "Three Dance Variations" from Fancy Free, an orchestral tour de force that segued into three songs from West Side Story — "Mambo," "I Feel Pretty" and "Somewhere." With the Santa Barbara Choral Society perched behind and above the orchestra, and after a rousing orchestral "Mambo," the stage was set for the entrance of the evening’s special guest — Vroman — to sing "I Feel Pretty" and "Somewhere." "A Little Bit in Love" from Wonderful Town followed and gave the audience an intimate overview of the artist’s beautifully balanced and mellifluous voice.

Before the last segment of the program, the choral society and the symphony performed "Gloria in Excelsis” from Mass, Bernstein’s controversial Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Re-examined more favorably in the composer’s centennial year than at its premiere in 1971, the treat was to hear this section from the work with fresh ears.

Sweeping back on stage in a fresh gown, Vroman brought the house down with "I Can Cook, Too" from On the Town and "I Am Easily Assimilated" from Candide before joining the choral society for the goose-bump finale, Candide’s glorious last chorus, "Make Our Garden Grow."

Wild applause for the orchestra, chorus, soloists and conductor led to a delightful surprise: maestro Kabaretti made his way to the piano back in the percussion department while the lights on stage went romantic and dim and accompanied Vroman in Bernstein’s "Some Other Time." Magic!

Noozhawk contributing writer Daniel Kepl can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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