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'Bernstein at 100' was worth the wait

While this year’s Virginia Arts Festival has been offering entertainment for months, April begins a constant flow of events, the opening of which kicked off Friday on a mighty musical note with its “Bernstein at 100.”

The program at the Ferguson Center featured the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, under JoAnn Falletta; the Virginia Chorale; Todd Rosenlieb Dance; soloist from the Virginia Children’s Chorus; internationally acclaimed guest soloists Robert McDuffie, violin, and Jon Manasse, clarinet; and as host-narrator Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie.

Bernstein was a genius, his creative output finding extensive success in crafting works for the stage and concert hall that embraced all musical styles. A solid sampling of his diversity provided the content of this program which opened with the bubbly Overture to “Candide,” which Falletta and company imbued with energy, spirit and exuberance.

Following and with equal exuberance throughout the evening was Jamie Bernstein who regaled us with stories of life with her father, along with stories behind the works heard Friday and how he came to write them. Her comments and presentation reflected her father’s larger-than-life personality and added to this celebratory concert.

The music continued with “Chichester Psalms,” a luxurious work based on selected texts from the Biblical book of Psalms and sung in Hebrew. At times sweetly lyrical, at times harmonically pleasing as well as jarring, at times percussive and jazzy, at times highly rhythmic, at all times challenging, “Psalms” is a tough sing given its complexities and vocal requirements within sections and in the whole. Its general texture is one of celebration and joy and, as such, offers hope for a sense of peace in our time. While Bernstein wanted the solo part to always be sung by a boy soprano or countertenor, portraying David (of the Psalms), here, a vocally talented Mandy Porter of Maury High in Norfolk did the honors and did so with pitch perfect delivery, her range and purity of voice exemplary. Bernstein would have approved.

“Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” is a full out jazz piece, dedicated to Benny Goodman, and played here by the acclaimed Manasse. For this hearing, choreography for 12 dancers was added to the mix and it didn’t mix well. Performing in front of the orchestra, the dance became a distraction, drew focus away from the music and obscured Manasse, relegating him to a second string player.

Serenade for Violin is fashioned after Plato’s “Symposium,” with each of its five movements reflecting thoughts of love and its glories and pains as seen through the likes of Aristophanes and Agathon. Talking us through the concept was McDuffie, whose remarks were humorous and instructive. A highly talented violinist of international status, McDuffie’s impressive display of virtuoso skill and lyricism was accented by his own choreography as he constantly moved about his space merging music and mood. It was a compelling performance that brought delight and appeal.

Rounding off the fare was Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” From start to finish, it was a performance that hit the emotional marks of the score and brought to mind vivid images seen in both the stage and film versions. The colorful score’s many moods were perfectly captured in a super charged performance that even found Falletta doing her own share of choreographed movement on the podium.

Capping off this affair was an encore and what an encore it was. The Chorale returned to the stage, along with youthful singers in street clothes who walked down the aisles and onto the stage to join in singing “Make My Garden Grow,” “Candide’s” powerful and monumental finale. It was a marvelously moving close to a finely done celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday and the Arts Festival’s 22nd season opening.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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