Leonard Bernstein would have turned 80 in August, and the latest round of critical assessments confirms his status as an American original, a protean talent who bridged traditions and broke barriers. But to fix him in memory, no amount of fulsome posthumous praise can rival the sheer pleasure of his music. The Cultural Center’s Bernstein birthday salute pays homage to the brash quintessential New Yorker who borrowed from jazz and Tin Pan Alley to come up with sparkling portraits of the metropolis he loved. Doing the honors is the Gershwin-Bernstein Ensemble, a Chicago Symphony Orchestra satellite group that features bassist Brad Opland, trumpeter Mark Ridenour, and violist Tom Wright as well as Lyric Opera vibraphonist Ed Harrison. Though they’ve been known to reel off a jazz standard or two, they always play like precise, disciplined classically trained instrumentalists–a style that makes sense for Bernstein, who more often than not wrote with classical musicians in mind. Bernstein went so far as to reorchestrate West Side Story as a suite for the New York Philharmonic, where he became conductor in 1957, the same year the original version began its extraordinary run on Broadway. He also wrote arrangements of the musical for chamber groups, one of which serves as the basis for the transcription the ensemble will use in this performance. Suites from On the Town and Wonderful Town are also on the program, as are vocal excerpts from that marvelous hybrid, Candide. The sextet–percussionists Jeff Stitely and Edward Atkatz round out the roster–has always delved into such material with a sort of easy brio and sly wit that Bernstein would surely have savored. The soloists are soprano Elizabeth Norman, mezzo Marilyn Bogetich, and tenor Mark James Meier–all adroit straddlers of the jazz/classical fence. Thursday, August 6, 6:30 PM, Randolph Cafe, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-1426. TED SHEN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Elizabeth Norman, Marilyn Bogetich, Bradley Opland photos.