On New Year’s Eve, David Geffen Hall looked great, all dressed up. There was, as I remember, a violet backdrop. The people onstage looked great too, all dressed up. They were members of the New York Philharmonic. The first two violas wore red and green dresses. (I forget which wore which.) Carter Brey, the principal cello, wore a red bow tie. On either side of the stage, television cameras glided about, to catch the action.
The program was called “Bernstein on Broadway,” and we are in for a lot of Bernstein, and have been already this season: 2018 marks the centennial of his birth. On the podium was Bramwell Tovey, the English conductor, and there were four soloists: Broadway performers. The program offered an assortment of music, both orchestral and vocal. Some songs were great (“Maria,” from West Side Story); some songs were weak (“It’s Love,” from Wonderful Town). The performances varied in quality too.
Very good was the opening number, the overture to Candide. It had the right verve and panache. Making a welcome contribution was Robert Langevin, the principal flute. Later on, the dance variations from Fancy Free were downright dull.
Shining amid the Broadway performers was Annaleigh Ashford, who can sing and dance and act—and whose timing is superb. That is a mysterious ingredient of performance, timing. It has great importance. In the taxi number from On the Town, Ashford was simply perfect.
Years ago, I dubbed Bramwell Tovey “your genial host,” when he conducted and emceed the pops concerts at the end of the Philharmonic’s regular season. On New Year’s Eve, he was again your genial host, talking throughout the evening.
He called Leonard Bernstein “the most famous American musician of the twentieth century.” When he said this, it immediately struck me as wrong. But then, thinking about it, I could not contradict it. (And no fair naming Rachmaninoff, for example.)
Maestro Tovey is among the most articulate of men, but he was not at the top of his game on this occasion. He said “extraordinary” every fourth word. And in talking about Bernstein, he really laid it on thick: This was a man who knew how it all worked, this was a man who knew our very souls, this was a man who gave his very life for his fellow human beings. Etc. I thought of an expression from junior high: “Gag me with a spoon.”
Last on the program was that traditional gala-ender, “Make Our Garden Grow,” from Candide. It is a secular hymn. It is an element of church for the Upper West Side, so to speak. Members of the audience sang along with the official performers. I found the hymn less wearisome than I usually do, because Tovey moved it along. You do this number no favors by letting it drag.
As an encore, we had a touch of Guy Lombardo, with “Auld Lang Syne.” I can always sing the first few words, then I forget (or never knew). How about you? (That’s the title of another song, by Lane and Freed.)
I have written a rather churlish post here, but this concert was very enjoyable, and Bramwell Tovey is a gent, and a talent. And Annaleigh Ashford can cook.
Bernstein? I will have a centennial appreciation in the next issue of the magazine. But for now, let me say, as I’ve said a thousand times before, West Side Story will live forever—for as long as anybody sings, plays, and dances.