“Bernstein in New York City” Review – CSO Takes Us Beyond the Score

Most of the program conveyed Bernstein's words when he was a young man


With grainy black and white photo collages of the New York City of the 1940’s and 50’s above and behind him and the CSO, actor Jonathan Mastro created the persona of Leonard Bernstein by reading selections from Bernstein’s vast correspondence. 


Projection Design by Mike Tutaj


We meet Bernstein fresh out of Harvard hoping for a big break and thinking he’ll give this new life a few years.  We travel with him through time as that big break comes when he subs for ailing Philharmonic Conductor Bruno Walter and wins critical acclaim. 


Actor Jonathan Mastro read letters to and from Bernstein, interwoven with selections from more than a dozen of Bernstein's works


Onward to Europe, to young Israel, and in love affairs with so many that you lose track.  These are mostly men, including famed Aaron Copland who notably writes him that if he said what he felt the pages of his letter would melt.  Through his letters we also feel his ardor for Felicia Montealegre Cohn, who became Bernstein’s wife and mother of their three children, proving those who warned Bernstein that she was wrong for him to be all wrong. 



The genius of this Beyond the Score program was to simply use Bernstein’s words in tandem with snippets from more than a dozen of his compositions to paint the picture of a man with great emotional depth and range.  Many of the pieces are aptly named for the emotional notes they hit—“Fancy Free”, “The Age of Anxiety”, “Kaddish”, “Dybbuk”, “On the Town”.    This Beyond the Score “exploration”, as the program notes call it, vividly portrayed Bernstein as no stranger to passion. 



Taking a step back it seemed that the production value of this Beyond the Score presentation and the message about the composer was simpler than in many others.   That is not a criticism.  If anything this formula put a spotlight on just how beautiful Bernstein’s music is—in all its moods—and why that’s why we can never tire of hearing it.


Following the Beyond the Score “exploration” and intermission, American-Israeli Conductor Steven Sloane led the impeccable CSO in Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide”, “Facsimile”, which seemed to have many phrases that Bernstein developed in his later works, and “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story”. 


As satisfying as this presentation and performance were, those who stayed were in for even more of a treat in the post-performance discussion led by CSO Director of Programming, James Fahey with a panel that included Beyond the Score Creative Director Gerard McBurney, and three who knew Bernstein personally – the conductor Steven Sloane, CSO Assistant Principal clarinet John Bruce Yeh, and CSO viola Max Raimi


Leonard Bernstein conducting. Photo by Christina Burton courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office


Both Raimi and Yeh shared anecdotes of what it was like to play under Bernstein’s baton and to experience his genius.  Raimi told of one time when Bernstein tamed an “alpha male” member of the orchestra from the South by putting on a heavier still Southern drawl to address him as “Honeychile”, and how so memorably he always moved like a ballet dancer when he had the baton.  Sloane shared an anecdote about Bernstein that intrigues but also confuses.  He told of how Bernstein held court in his hotel room, with him and many other guests, drinking his trademark scotch, dragging on his cigarette as usual, but sitting in the chair without any pants!  More to the point of the Beyond the Score exploration we had just been on, Sloane also shared an anecdote that when he, as a fledgling conductor, asked Bernstein to clarify a confusion in a score and say how it should be done, Bernstein advised, “Just do what you feel”. 



We’re hooked—now looking for the biographies of Bernstein mentioned by McBurney and others in the post-performance talk and fleshing out our musical library to include all Bernstein scores.  It’s just as we imagine the CSO planned.  We’ve gone—Beyond the Score. 


Conductor Steven Sloane, actor Jonathan Mastro, the orchestra and McBurney take bows



This is sadly the last year of Beyond the Score programming, although McBurney shares that there will be some successor incarnation that will continue in its path.  For tickets and information on the remaining Beyond the Score and other CSO concerts call 312-294-3000 or visit the CSO website.




Photos: Todd Rosenberg Photography, unless otherwise indicated.


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