Boston’s Bernstein: Now and Then

Harvard’s Office for the Arts (OFA) kicked off its festival honoring acclaimed composer, conductor, and musician Leonard Bernstein ’39 last Thursday evening in Paine Hall with a concert featuring student performers. The concert explored the musical influences from Bernstein’s youth and time at Harvard during the first half, and continued demonstrating the presence of these influences in Bernstein’s own works in the latter half of the performance. It was a fitting retrospective on Bernstein’s early development as a musician as well as a remarkable display of Harvard’s current musical talent.

The concert began with two traditional Jewish songs that had a large presence in Bernstein’s youth in Boston. The first song featured Harvard’s Bernstein Festival Singers in the fore, singing Hebrew in unison; they then assembled into a semi-circle around the piano for the second song.

The program continued with Nora I. Bartosik ’08 performing Aaron Copland’s “Piano Variations”—a piece that Bernstein is said to have played for composer Aaron Copland at their first meeting, beginning a mentorship that was to last for the rest of their lives. Bartosik performed the striking, dissonant piece with impeccable attention to detail, and the piece—said to “empty the room” when Bernstein performed it socially—instead elicited cheers throughout the audience.

The concert then featured three selections from musicals Bernstein produced during his adolescence, all ably accompanied on the piano by Derrick L. Wang ’06.

Matthew V. Anderson ‘03 gave a great vocal performance on “A Wandr’ing Minstrel I” from Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” Anderson later returned with Catherine L. Vaughan ‘08 for Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing.” In “Croon-Spoon,” from Marc Blitzstein’s “Cradle Will Rock,” the different performance experience of singers John D. Kapusta ’09 and Kathy D. Gerlach ’07 was evident; nonetheless, the duet was excellent.

The highlight of the evening, however, was Harold Shapero’s “Four-Hand Sonata for Piano,” played by Bartosik and Wei-Jen Yuan ’06. The two, side by side at the keyboard, sometimes played in unison, but occasionally diverged into different halves of a melodic line. The four hands fantastically combined complex rhythms and lines to make it seem as if they were one performer at the piano.

After the intermission, the Bernstein compositions began with “Yigdal,” a fantastic round clearly influenced by Bernstein’s Jewish tradition. “Simchu Na,” a Bernstein arrangement, again featured the Festival Singers, who handled its difficult language and melodies well. Hilary K. Finucane ’09 treated Bernstein’s “Seven Anniversaries”—short pieces in tribute to important figures in his life—with emotion and subtlety, and echoes of Copland and Shapero resounded through her fine performance.

The night got really interesting when an orchestra of piano, clarinet, recorder, accordion, two ukeleles, two percussionists, and three vocalists emerged for the world premiere of a Bernstein arrangement of the well-known Gershwin piece “Rhapsody In Blue,” which Bernstein is said to have written for a band at the summer camp where he worked. Hearing the familiar themes of the piece on completely different instruments drew laughter from the crowd, but the performance, grounded by Bartosik on piano and Giancarlo Garcia ‘08 on clarinet, was actually quite good.

The evening ended with Bernstein’s “Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano,” with Jennifer D. Chang ‘09 on violin, Mimi Yu ‘08 on cello, and Amy T. Wu ‘09 on piano. The trio played through the various and often difficult sections with poise—Yu in particular flowed from subtle bowed lines to percussive phrases with ease—and the piece proved a fine conclusion to a pleasantly eclectic program.