Centenary celebrations

Bernstein at 100 (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

QPAC, Concert Hall

August 25

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Leonard Bernstein is a towering figure in the musical world. Among the first conductors born and educated in the US to receive worldwide acclaim, he is remembered for his accomplishments in both classical and popular music and his colourful conducting style. And as 2018 marks his centenary year, commemoration is certainly called for, all across the world, including by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in its special event “Bernstein at 100”. The long-time musical director of the New York Philharmonic was prodigiously talented across many fields, so capturing the different aspects of his compositional character within a tribute event was never going to be an easy feat.

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Surprisingly to many, the superstar composer and conductor created just one movie score, the Oscar nominated ‘Symphonic Suite’ from the searing Marlon Brando drama “On The Waterfront”, later adapted to be a stand-alone orchestral work. The unique integrated single-moment work, is, therefore an excellent choice to begin the night’s celebration.

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It is a nice selection too in its showcase beyond just the orchestra’s strings, starting with brassy horn sounds before exciting with energetic percussion drums. Soloists are showcased on saxophone and flute and then there is unite of the full scale orchestra and the visual spectacle of seeing the vista of string instrument bows moving in unison; it is a stunning start to the evening.

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Strings are on show in the second Act One number also, the more playful ‘Chichester Psalms’ for Chorus and Orchestra, which significantly features the harp. The always-handy listening guide within the show’s program tells audiences of how the work was commissioned by the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, and is a setting of select verses from Bible psalms.

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The liturgical meaning of the passage is certainly clear in its three movements as Brisbane Chorale, Voices of Birralee and Canticum Chamber Choir voices, join towards a second movement feature of a boy in serene solo, Boy Soprano Riley Petersen.

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Timpani drums are moved to the front of the Concert Hall stage after interval, but Act Two’s opening number, begins with clarinets in conversation at a bar. The is ‘The Age of Anxiety,’ Benestein’s second of three symphonies, based on W. H. Auden’s Pulitzer-prize-winning poem about the problematic search for faith, but now more well-known than its source material.

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The work’s series of variations are clear in their exploration of a range of moods and textures as the initial lonely couple’s conversation is enlivened by the arrival of other protagonists in bar patronage and then the existential lament on their taxi ride home to prolong the party. As fragmented music unifies, a swaysome celebration is shared through jazzy sounds on way to its triumphant ending.

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Certainly, the complex work serves as a colourful highlight, particularly in witness of Andrea’s Haefliger’s dynamic pianism representing the work’s protagonist, which is almost at match with Conductor and Musical Director Alondara de la Parra’s infectious energy.

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Still, it is the tremendously popular and critically successful “West Side Story” that features more prominently in popular perception of Bernstein’s legacy and it is appropriate, therefore to end with his swinging ‘Symphonic Dances’. Complete with finger clicking musicians, the numbers are as eclectic and they are energetic and the passion of their trombonist and percussionist’s introduction become the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the night’s rejoice.

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To celebrate one of the major figures in orchestral conducting in the second half of the 20th century on the actual day of what would have been his 100th birthday is a wonderful treat in itself, however, in the QSO’s hands, the joy becomes infectious in share, from its opening “On the Waterfront” moments to its encore overture from “Candide”. Indeed, the virtuosic journey of “Bernstein at 100” shows that it is not only the legend that we should be celebrating, but the musicianship of the state’s accomplished orchestra as well.

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