In his heyday in the 1950s and '60s, Leonard Bernstein was everybody's idea of a classical musician. Baby boomers grew up on his incomparable Young People's Concerts on TV while their parents were bowled over by the intensity of his conducting in Mahler symphonies.
"I can't think of another person in the last 100 years that had more of an impact on American music than Leonard Bernstein,'' says Richard Zielinski, artistic director of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. "Today we don't have a spokesperson like Bernstein. He was our musical beacon. He gave us direction and set the artistic, intellectual standard.''
Bernstein would have turned 90 this year, and the tributes are everywhere, especially in New York, where Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic and others are putting on a festival that includes most of his major works. Zielinski and the Master Chorale are doing their part with a pair of Bernstein concerts next weekend in St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Zielinski, 49, who grew up in Fond du Lac, Wis., with three musical-theater-loving older sisters, first became acquainted with Bernstein through his masterpiece West Side Story. "The West Side Story album was a big part of our life,'' he says. "I think that hearing those songs taught me a lot about how to sing.''
He admired the complexity of Bernstein's Broadway scores. "I can hear in all of his vocal writing the symphonic influences of Mahler, especially in West Side Story,'' Zielinski says. "He used a very classical approach to his writing for the voice and knew how to be very theatrical with it. Somewhere, One Hand, One Heart — these wonderful flowing melodies, and the harmonic structure underneath reminds me of Mahler.''
The Master Chorale program includes selections from West Side Story and the comic operetta Candide (which Stephen Sondheim thinks is Bernstein's best score).
Jewish themes run through many of Bernstein's works, such as the Jeremiah and Kaddish symphonies. The 135-voice chorus will perform his setting of the Hebrew psalms, Chichester Psalms, which features a tuneful part for boy alto, to be sung by countertenor Ray Chenez, a grad student in vocal performance at Florida State University.
In another sacred work, the chorus will sing Bernstein's Missa Brevis, in an arrangement by Robert Shaw. Tenor Brad Diamond will be the soloist in A Simple Song from the Mass Bernstein composed to honor the slain president John F. Kennedy in 1971.
The Master Chorale performs its Bernstein program at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 701 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, and 4 p.m. Nov. 2 at Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church, 2902 W Fletcher Ave., Tampa. $10, $20. (813) 974-7726; masterchorale.com.
MORE BERNSTEIN: The San Francisco Symphony's all-Bernstein concert from Carnegie Hall (performed Sept. 24) is broadcast at 9 p.m. Wednesday on WEDU-Ch. 3 in the Tampa Bay area. Conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, a Bernstein protege, the program features Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Yo-Yo Ma in Meditation No. 1 from the Mass, and Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Hampson in selections from A Quiet Place.
SYMPHONY: Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (the last work, incidentally, that Bernstein conducted, at the Tanglewood Music Festival in August 1990, two months before his death) seems to be in vogue. It opened the Florida Orchestra's masterworks season this weekend, and it's also on the opening program of the Tampa Bay Symphony, Jack Heller conducting. Jay Coble and Lyle Manwaring are the soloists in Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Trumpets, and the St. Petersburg College Concert Chorus, directed by Vernon Taranto Jr., sings Randall Thompson's The Testament of Freedom and How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place from Brahms' German Requiem. The symphony, made up of volunteer musicians, performs at 8 p.m. Thursday at Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; 4 p.m. Nov. 2 at Ferguson Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa; and 8 p.m. Nov. 3 at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $20. (727) 442-3696; tampasymphony.com.
LARYS: Pinellas County community theater's Lary Awards were given out this month, and Eight O'Clock Theatre's Cabaret was the favorite musical production from last season and top award-winner with seven Larys. St. Petersburg Little Theatre's The Diary of Anne Frank was named the favorite drama, and Francis Wilson Playhouse's Rumors the favorite comedy.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.