On Jan. 21, 2018, fans of Leonard Bernstein gathered in The Greene Space of Lower Manhattan for a night of songs and celebration in honor of the 100th birthday of the great composer. Hosted by WQXR’s Elliott Forrest, the event was equal parts reminiscence and reverie, in large part due to pianist Laura Downes, who performed much of her upcoming album “Songs for Lenny.”
The evening began with footage of “New York, New York” from Bernstein’s “On the Town.” This made for a fitting place to start with one of Bernstein’s earliest works as the rest of the event would see a number of opera stars reflecting on the impact the celebrated composer had on their lives and on their own art.
“This will be my London debut. I will be singing Songfest, and I actually know some of the other soloists who I went to school with, and it’s just a great piece. For me it’s very American, it’s the epitome of what America is, and Bernstein – he took influences musically and from other poets and combined them to say “Hey, this is who we are, these are our struggles, this is love, this is everything that makes us who we are” so I think it’s a great representation and I’m very happy to sing it.”
From “Songfest” J’Nai sang “Music I Heard With You.” Expressing sonorous tribute that flowingly transitioned between love and obsession, no doubt singing the emotions bore within the hearts of Bernstein’s many fans.
Remarking on the distinction shared between Pérez and Downes as Sphinx award winners, Pérez elaborated “I was honored last spring and it is life-changing. It changed the scope of perspective, it highlighted how we want to increase access and education for more diverse musicians, so that people from across the country of different backgrounds have access and funds to explore their creativity, and they can feel like they can bring their heritage to a classical setting. It’s changed the lens from which I perform. I’m working on a project to sing more Spanish songs and perhaps collaborate on a new setting for these familiar boleros, so that’s something I’m excited about; I’m working very hard on it this year.”
When asked of the significance of Leonard Bernstein in her own life, Pérez answered “I like Laura has really taken on his spirit. I think that her album and the perspective that she has brought to these familiar songs that we know from him – you can hear this man who, with all of his masterclasses at Harvard, with the way he would frame pop artist’s music in an educational setting can make it relatable to the younger audiences. I think that’s what’s important and what’s his legacy; it’s very American and very unique.”
Pérez then went on to perform the song “I Hate Music!” from Bernstein’s “I Hate Music: A Cycle of Five Kid Songs,” noting the remarkable instruction from the famed composer: “In the performance of these songs, coyness is to be assiduously avoided. The natural, unforced sweetness of child expressions can never be successfully gilded; rather will it come through the music in proportion to the dignity and sophisticated understanding of the singer.”
“No pressure,” Pérez quipped before diving into the song, lending to the humorous lyrics a heavenly panache.
“I had just made my Metropolitan debut and Lenny was putting together a cast for “La Boheme” at Rome; I was one of the last people to audition. It was supposed to be 15 minutes. I had three pieces; he canceled the first one, heard the big aria from “Faust,” and I said “I’ve got a Mahler song, would you let me sing that?” He said “I can do that,” so he lit up a cigarette, I started doing the song, and all of a sudden I realized Lenny is sitting there, his ash is getting longer, and he’s just staring at me, then he goes “do that again!” An hour later we’re still working and talking about Mahler and my life changed that afternoon without question. We did “La Boheme” in Rome and then he invited me to do Mahler with the Vienna Philharmonic. The first was in 1988, the next in 1989, and then we came to do Carnegie. Lenny’s last concert at Carnegie was actually my debut… What Lenny heard and saw in me as a young man, only an experienced person can do that; all these many years later it’s just the path I’ve stayed on.”
When Hampson was asked how he was introduced to Laura Downes, he replied “I’m not sure who brought who to who but someone brought us together for this recording and – talk about wonderful music from the next generation. You’re [Laura] just- I’ve loved you from afar.”
“Same,” assured Downes. “Tom has been more of an inspiration to me than he knows because way back when I started making recordings I found the Song of America project and it just opened my eyes and my world. The idea that a person could be a great artist, a great performer, a scholar, a communicator, a sharer, like Leonard Bernstein, it’s been a tremendous influence on me… I could not ask for more.”
Unfortunately, Hampson’s voice was not up for performing that evening due to a minor illness, so instead the audience was shown footage from Hampson’s recording session with Downes for “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass.” Here the veteran baritone sang with reverence; though the song may be simple, it carried meaning that can only be brought by two performers who connected with Bernstein on a personal level.
“I grew up in the North East of Germany, at the time it was still divided,” began Bleckmann. “Very much like Laura I saw “West Side Story” on TV then I had to order the vinyl in my little village which took six weeks to arrive, and every other day I went to this little electronic store and was like “Is my record here? Is my record here?” The first vinyl was “West Side Story” and the rest is history.”
The song he sang “Take Care of This House,” from Bernstein’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” was not much of a success commercially. Bleckmann explained the meaning it held in his eyes: “Well it’s quite political, the house being the White House, and I don’t want to give away the whole lyric but every line in this song applies so absolutely perfectly to the time we live in now. Period.” As Downes began the opening chords, Bleckmann performed the number. His voice alternated, at one moment heavy with warning and in the next flying off with sentimental tenderness, displaying the underlying emotions that comprised this piece.
To bring the evening to a close, the artists returned to the stage to sing “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” Ultimately, this event made for a loving celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial. As the years go by, performers and audiences alike will undoubtedly remember what Bernstein brought to each of their lives and to the art of music itself.