Orchestra Miami scores with double bill of Bernstein rarities

By Lawrence Budmen

Gabriel, Preisser and Caitlin McKechney in Bernstein's "Arias and Barcarolles" Saturday night at PInecrest Gardens.

Gabriel Preisser and Caitlin McKechney in Bernstein’s “Arias and Barcarolles” Saturday night at PInecrest Gardens. Photo: John Pierre Scholl

Orchestra Miami and Magic City Opera took the prize for the best local celebration of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and creative life with a winning double bill of Bernstein works Saturday night at Pinecrest Gardens’ Banyan Bowl.

The one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti and the song cycle Arias and Barcarolles represent the early and late periods of Bernstein’s compositional oeuvre—as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the composer’s big tent approach, which embraced everything from atonality to pop, folk and even rock influences.

Written in 1988, Arias and Barcarolles was Bernstein’s last major score. While originally written for voices with a four-hand piano accompaniment, conductor Elaine Rinaldi opted for Bruce Coughlin’s 1993 arrangement for orchestra. Coughlin’s version upgrades the instrumental writing with an authentic Bernstein sound and his colorful scoring immeasurably improves this uneven mini-drama for baritone and mezzo soprano.

The agitated, jazz-infused figurations of the Prelude are immediately recognizable as Bernstein’s voice. Unfortunately, with a text mostly by the composer, the eight sections do not consistently sustain the inventive promise of the opening measures. A “Love Duet” is a jittery interrogation in obtuse musical lines. “Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight” works more effectively as drama than music as a husband and wife quarrel over moving to a new city and job while trying to control their noisy children.

The work’s best moments come in the solo sections. “Greeting” is a lyrical welcome to a newborn child, and was sung with expressive directness by mezzo-soprano Caitlin McKechney. The charismatic baritone Gabriel Preisser (Papageno in Orchestra Miami’s Magic Flute last season) was utterly captivating in “Oif Mein Khas’neh” (At My Wedding), a tribute to klezmer wedding bands. He vividly captured the irony in “The Love of My Life,” aided by Coughlin’s scoring of the Mahlerian undercurrent for solo violin and cello.

Rinaldi brought clarity to the orchestral lines, making the best case for Bernstein’s valedictory essay and occasional bursts of inspiration. Dilyana Zlatinova Tsenov’s violin and Violaine Mazel’s cello solos rang in richly, evocative tones and Orlando Scalia’s clarinet seemed to come right out of an Eastern European village band.

Trouble in Tahiti was conceived in the early 1950′s during Bernstein’s most fertile creative era. In the next six years he would write the classic film score for On the Waterfront, the successful Broadway musical Wonderful Town and his two masterpieces—Candide and West Side Story. A social satire on the growth of suburbia and American materialism following World War II, Trouble in Tahiti is somewhat dated and not on the level of Bernstein’s best music theater scores. Still the 40- minute work is clever and entertaining, often successfully melding operatic ambitions with the vernacular pop music of the pre rock ‘n roll era.

The opera pictures Sam and Dinah, a married couple who seem to have it all. Beneath the veneer of their “little white house” in the suburbs, Sam’s successful job and a growing son who participates in his school’s drama presentations, their marriage is broken and empty. They constantly argue about matters large and small. Sam prefers to spend time with male friends at the gym while Dinah regularly sees an analyst to try to retrieve her marriage and troubled life. A three-singer Greek chorus introduces and comments on the events in bright rhythmic patterns reminiscent of the big band era. At the conclusion, they agree to go see a movie about Tahiti (which Dinah has already viewed) in an effort to keep their marriage alive but their relationship remains fragile.

McKechney and Preisser brought a real sense of tension to their scenes. Even when they were trying to be kind and polite to each other, there was a chill that seemed impenetrable. As they painfully held hands at the conclusion, they seemed in separate worlds. The chemistry of the two protagonists was riveting in director Michael Yawney’s spare but imaginative staging.

Their singing was equally outstanding. Preisser commands the kind of voluminous baritone singers like John Raitt and Howard Keel used to bring to the Broadway stage. Sam’s aria “There are men” (after winning his handball game at the gym) was an ode to machismo, sung by Preisser with stentorian power.

Perhaps the evening’s most touching moment was McKechney’s performance of Dinah’s monologue at the analyst’s office as she longs for “a quiet place.” This beautiful solo is a haunting confession of sadness in the great American tradition of operatic composers such as Gian Carlo Menotti and Douglas Moore. The smoky depth of McKechney’s lower register registered Dinah’s loneliness. By contrast her description of the movie “Island Magic” was a musical comedy turn, done with the showstopping high style of a Mary Martin.

Both McKechney and Preisser handled Bernstein’s diverse stylistic leaps between opera and American vernacular with aplomb. As the trio of onlookers, Scott Bracken-Tripp, Shannna Nolan Gundry and Anthony Zoeller blended felicitously and caught the beat of Bernstein’s breezy jingles but turned dark and reflective for the troubled final scene.

Rinaldi brought snappy pacing and subtle detailing to Garth Sunderland’s reduction for 16 instruments, which is actually superior to Bernstein’s overstuffed orchestration. Director Yawney’s inventive production made a virtue of minimalism. With a table and chairs serving as the main set for every scene, Yawney kept the focus on the protagonists and the agony beneath their seeming mundane existence. Lauren Constantine’s costumes ranged from gold jackets for the men of the trio to a stunning red dress and blue head piece for Dinah plus a Tahitian native look for her description of the movie.

All credit to Elaine Rinaldi for presenting this intriguing Bernstein double bill. Perhaps she can continue to explore the more intimate side of the American operatic canon. There is one remaining performance on Sunday and this well-produced staging is worth catching.

Orchestra Miami repeats the Bernstein double bill 4 p.m. Sunday at the Alan and Diane Lieberman Theater, MAR JCC, 18900 NE 25 Avenue in Aventura. orchestramiami.org; 305-274-2103.

Posted in Performances


2 Responses to “Orchestra Miami scores with double bill of Bernstein rarities”

  1. Posted Jan 16, 2019 at 10:41 pm by Fred Wickstrom

    This was, in my opinion, the most exciting musical performance of the season. Who needs visiting performances by the Cleveland Orchestra when Miami has talent like this which should be developed and nurtured.

  2. Posted Jan 17, 2019 at 6:06 pm by Joan Schmitt

    Bravo Elaine!What a terrific review for you and your program.Wish I could have been there.Best wishes and love,Joan

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