Bernstein and DeMain

John DeMain, right, works with legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

While many in John DeMain’s generation have been influenced by Leonard Bernstein, few have worked with him so closely. DeMain received instruction from the great American polymusician when on fellowship at the famous Tanglewood Music Festival and, nearly a decade later in 1983, premiered Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” as conductor of the Houston Grand Opera. Perhaps this is why the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Friday evening tribute to Leonard Bernstein, “Remembering Lenny,” felt so intimate.

The concert progressed through the multiple dimensions of Bernstein’s musicality: Overture to Candide and the three dance episodes from On the Town showcased two of his most memorable works as a composer; his Symphony No. 2 (“Age of Anxiety”), with its concerto-like piano part, spoke to Bernstein the pianist; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 celebrated Bernstein’s infamous role as conductor.

The overture to Candide is the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s most performed piece, making this well-known Bernstein composition a great way to start off the concert. While the MSO’s rendering was slightly reserved, the orchestra skillfully handled the challenging rhythmic particularities of the work, clearly articulating its twirling melodic lines and punctuating its pronounced phrases.

The three dance episodes from On the Town are a fun collection that demonstrates Bernstein’s ability to maneuver musical styles ranging from symphonic to jazz and Broadway, a great choice for the versatile MSO. The orchestra was especially agile in the second episode, “Lonely Town,” confidently performing the number’s abrupt dynamic contrasts. Notably, the principal trumpeter, John Aley, handled his numerous solos with wonderful style. While the third episode “Times Square,” which features Bernstein’s famous song “New York, New York,” was a bit heavy-handed at moments, overall the MSO conjured a lively dancelike quality throughout all three episodes that evoked the musical.

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DeMain with Bernstein

As part of DeMain's 25th anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, DeMain will pay homage Bernstein with a concert called "Remembering Lenny."

Bernstein’s Second Symphony, “The Age of Anxiety,” was the highlight of the concert. It is one of his lesser-known works but is assuredly one of his most personal. He once referred to the work’s prominent piano part—played by the composer at the premiere—as “an almost autobiographical protagonist.” Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning poem by W.H. Auden by the same name, the work deals with the problem of faith in the wake of the World War II. The symphony follows the plot of the poem: four inebriated strangers who meet at a bar ponder the status of faith in a seemingly bleak and banal world. By the end of the symphony’s metaphysical journey, faith is reaffirmed, yet not without deep introspective reckoning.

To tackle the demanding piano part, the MSO brought on the fearless Christopher Taylor, who gave an impassioned performance. Taylor embodied the emotional character of the work, rendering the meticulous agitating figures beautiful and the jazzy melodic phrases songful. This was perhaps the perfect setting for such a dynamic and talented player.

DeMain suggested that Bernstein was “fascinated by the form of the poem,” which the composer mirrors in his symphony’s two large parts. “The Prologue” begins with a simultaneously sweet and anxious clarinet duet that presents the main theme of the work. The next two sections, “The Seven Ages” and “The Seven Stages,” are a unique set of variations that progressively build on each preceding variation, not all deriving from a single theme.

The second part begins with a twelve-tone row, a musical sign for non-directionality, representing the hopeless anxiety felt by the poem’s characters. Throughout the second parts three section, the MSO generated luscious sonorities and worked very well with Taylor at the piano to find a harmonious balance. By the end of the work, the trumpet, whose efforts had been thwarted earlier, breaks through the sonic milieu, representing the poem’s characters’ mental breakthrough in their acceptance of faith. The MSO painted this moment beautifully.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was on the program of Bernstein’s first concert as maestro of the New York Philharmonic and was the final piece he conducted. On Friday night, the work rounded out the imagination of Bernstein that the MSO had crafted over the concert.

Much ink has been spilled over the tempo markings of Beethoven’s Symphonies, so to spare the details and get to the crux of the matter, DeMain chose well—perhaps a product of his discussions with Bernstein at Tanglewood about Beethoven. Most notably, DeMain’s tempo in the second—and perhaps most well-known—movement imbued the main theme with a vitality that kept the Allegretto driving forward. The final two movements were wonderfully lively and proved that the MSO can perform at high velocity.

At the final coda, DeMain was charged with vigor, seemingly channeling his late mentor—who was known for his animated conducting—as he led his orchestra into the final triumphant measures of Bernstein’s favorite Beethoven Symphony.

The MSO’s Friday night concert brilliantly displayed the many sides of Bernstein the prolific musician, echoing DeMain’s description of him: “somebody who lived five lives in one person.”

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.