Travel back to 1957, just weeks prior to the Aug. 19 premiere of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story in Washington D.C.
The composer wasn't getting sleep nor eating more than pastrami sandwiches. Many operatic portions which Bernstein thought significant were being cut. Music had to be rewritten, re-scored; he even drew the melody of "One Hand, One Heart" from a rejected tune intended for Candide, which he also penned that year.
Sure, everyone, including Bernstein, wanted the updated Romeo and Juliet tale to be commercially successful, but at what cost?
At a recent Houston Chamber Choir concert "Music in the Key of Joy" at the Church of St. John the Divine, Jamie Bernstein read (for CultureMap's interview with her click here) those letters and recounted the many trials and tribulations of her father's aesthetic journey, one whose music was invariably suffused with joy, taking listeners right to the point of creation and controversy as his works evolved against the current of what was thought of as "serious" in academia.
Bye bye bow ties and hello colorful shirts, naughty stilettos and jazz hands. It's time for vocal pops.
Tonality? Broadway? Musical theater? Tunes? They were considered passe — so last century. Atonality was in.
If there's one thing Leonard Bernstein couldn't stop sketching is an unforgettable melodic line.
And if there's one thing the Houston Chamber Choir knows best is how to shape beautiful melodic lines, like a swoosh that begins al niente, strives for a crest and cascades down to repose. Time after time the singers — usually in in prim and proper formal attire, long gowns, tuxedos, water bottles and scarves — managed to keep long contours connected across many bar lines.
But this was a different kind of Houston Chamber Choir: Bye bye bow ties and hello colorful shirts, naughty stilettos and jazz hands. It's time for vocal pops.
Even artistic director Robert Simpson moved out of the way, waving his baton just for the large ensemble numbers, to let loose a theatrical, sassy (saucy) and well executed somewhat programmatic musicale performed mostly from memory.
Four sections honed in on the composer's diverse opus. "Fortune Smiles" amassed tunes that evinced fate, "Adonai" delved into Bernstein's Jewish ancestry, "Life in America" touched on the immigrant experience, "Boy Meets Girl" explored cheeky romance and "Any Questions" summed up his ethos with Candide's "Make Our Garden Grow."
Someone needs to gift Kelli Shircliffe lots of sparkly bling — and no Swarovski crystals, either. Real stuff only, please.
To sing "Glitter and Be Gay" is akin to taking on Etta James' "At Last." It's a demanding diva ditty with all sorts of taxing technical and emotional difficulties. For her rendition, someone needs to gift Kelli Shircliffe lots of sparkly bling — and no Swarovski crystals, either. Real stuff only, please.
Besides gloriously bellowing E-flats and whipping through comedic coloratura passages, this gal's fearless fuss earned hosannas from many in the audience.
Chichester Psalms (which Leonard affectionately nicknamed "Chich") conveyed the troupe's blending capabilities. Magical harmonic modulations and unexpected resolutions rise and fall, opening up to a pure treble solo by fourth-grader Thomas Girardet, who reminded me of a time when I, as a young lad, stepped up to sing the second movement.
There was no restraint in "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story. Finger snapping, clapping, hip shaking, slapstick, it all worked.
What a gent Joshua Wilson was in "Lonely Town," which was a nice prelude to Sonja Bruzauskas getting foxy with "A Little Bit in Love." And Andrea Brown's "One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man" . . . let's just say she's a dame you don't mess with. Many other showcase performances, and that of the Treble Choir of Houston, were outstanding.
Having listened and performed these works repeatedly, I found myself reminiscing of the events surrounding past concerts with nostalgia. Jamie Bernstein honors her father by hosting these show-and-play productions, but she confided that recalling the memories isn't easy.
Music zealots surely appreciated her willingness to do so.