Since Maverick Concerts’ Music Director Alexander Platt revived the tradition of chamber orchestra concerts, they have specialized in big orchestra music. On Saturday, August 25, the exact date of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday anniversary, Platt directed his small ensemble arrangement of Bernstein’s late, rarely heard Songfest. The work was intended as a celebration of the American bicentennial but Bernstein finished it late and it was first performed in 1977. Platt had scheduled his version for Maverick in 2011 but the concert had to be canceled in the wake of Hurricane Irene. However, he gave it a successful performance at the Ravinia Festival in 2013. The performance was supplemented by excellent readings of each poem by members of the Actors & Writers company.
Songfest definitely deserves renewed attention. It’s a fascinating collection of songs, settings of a wide variety of American poetry from colonial to contemporary (as of 1976), each one in its own style. I would probably never have heard this work in live performance if not for this event. Even Bernstein’s own recording of the work is out of print, as is a later recording conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
The work presents challenges. It requires six singers, who perform individually and in all kinds of ensembles including a sextet. In this respect, Platt was fortunate that he has nearby the annual Phoenicia Festival of the Voice. The two organizations do cooperate and PFV supplied most of the singers. Then, there’s the orchestra. Platt’s arrangement calls for 8 winds and brass and 5 strings. Just looking at that lineup, you can guess the result; the strings were often inaudible.
Sometimes even the singers had trouble being heard. I was not entirely sure who was singing what, since the otherwise very detailed program booklet (including all the song texts) didn’t specify which singer was singing which song. I can tell a soprano from a mezzo but not which of two mezzos is singing what unless I know one of them, which I didn’t. However, I can report that soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, who sang the second solo, found herself severely challenged by the brass. In the 200-seat Maverick Hall, the effect of those brass and the enthusiastic percussion players, could be overwhelming at times, especially with all six singers in full voice.
This was a major event in the Maverick season, and a huge gift in enabling us to experience even a sonically reduced version. There were no weak links in the vocal ensemble. Everyone sounded splendid. It was fascinating to hear the way Bernstein adapted his style to the nature of the poems he had chosen, like the jazzy Ferlinghetti, the Spanish-tinged Julia de Burgos, the most harmonically adventurous setting of Walt Whitman (with superb flute playing from Seung Jeon). The instrumentalists, except for the percussionists, belonged to the Caroga Arts Ensemble, from a festival held annually in the Adirondacks. All sounded excellent.
Platt directed with his usual crisp authority, doing his best to produce good balance, and succeeding in achieving spectacularly accurate ensemble. Overall this was an exciting experience. People filled every seat in the hall and in the outdoor seating area, a tribute to our love for Bernstein and our admiration for Alexander Platt’s conducting.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.