A Powerfully Moving Bernstein Tribute by a Former Protégé

By Truman C. Wang
10/26/2018

Photo credit: Doug Gifford

 Chichester Psalms with Angel Garcia

Chichester Psalms with Angel Garcia

As an L.A. resident who also attends concerts in the OC and environs, I have been time and again impressed by the scrupulous care and thoughtfulness from the OC concert presenters – something that the LA Phil, for example, is sorely lacking.  A case in point - at last week’s all-Bernstein concert, the Pacific Symphony celebrated Bernstein’s centennial year with music inside and an afterparty outside in the plaza.  The Segerstrom Concert Hall lobby became an impromptu Bernstein exhibit with display boards and a pianist playing show tunes of West Side Story and Rodgers & Hart.  It was all very festive, immersive and fun!

 Bernstein exhibit in the lobby (Photo: Truman Wang)

Bernstein exhibit in the lobby (Photo: Truman Wang)

There is no better person to host the Bernstein birthday bash than the Pacific Symphony’s Music Director Carl St. Clair, who got to know Lenny personally as his protégé at Tanglewood in the 1980’s.  He was assisted at Friday’s concert (abridged due to the afterparty) by the popular KUSC radio host Alan Chapman, who provided highly informative and entertaining talks about Bernstein before each piece (or else he would have to “help move the furniture.”)

The program opened with Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, originally written for Benny Goodman’s band and showing Bernstein’s bold and witty take on melding the classical and popular styles.  It was a rousing, toe-tapping performance with swinging, riotous ‘Riffs’ by the principal clarinetist Joseph Morris that brought down the house.

The rarely heard, but absolutely gorgeous, Chichester Psalms shows another example of Bernstein’s duality (of the sacred and the profane, in this piece).  In the opening Psalm 108:2, one can almost detect the jazzy, swinging rhythms from the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs.  Then, in the next section, in a mood change as dramatic as anything Bernstein wrote for the theater, a celestial melody is heard on the harp accompanying a boy soprano (the voice of David, sung in pure silvery tones by the aptly named, twelve-year-old, Angel Garcia).  The Pacific Chorale gave some of the finest choral singing I have heard with loveliness of tone at all dynamic levels.  The SATB soloists from the Chorale – Chelsea Chaves, Jane Hyun-Jun Shim, Nicholas Preston, Matthew Kellaway – were outstanding

Musical theater veteran and concert artist Celena Shafer provided smooth vocals for the enchanting “A Little Bit in Love” from Wonderful Town, and unleashed brilliant fireworks from her slender lyric soprano in “Glitter and Be Gay”, singing the fast section correctly in a ‘laughing staccato’ as the composer intended (and demonstrated by Barbara Cook, the original Cunegunde, in a NPR interview just before she died last year.)   The Pacific Chorale joined Ms. Shafer and tenor Nicholas Preston in a powerfully moving “Make Our Garden Grow” finale, where there were many teary eyes in the audience, including my own.


Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.