Just one year before Leonard Bernstein’s death in 1990, Edward Seckerson was presented with an extraordinary chance to interview his idol. It transpired that Seckerson’s editor chose the young enthusiast over the heads of more senior and experienced critics.
On the day of the interview itself, things did not bode well. Many of the cast of the concert had flu, Bernstein himself was feeling under the weather and told the orchestra he was in a foul mood. He introduced himself to Seckerson by declaring he had been told to do this interview “on pain of death”.
But, Seckerson won him over by telling him he wanted to converse about Bernstein as a composer, not as a classical conductor. This altered the atmosphere considerably and the two were able to bond.
Seckerson’s admiration for this great composer has never wavered, and the evening at St James Theatre was a thorough exploration of this most prolific and versatile musician and writer.
He is joined by composer, arranger and musical director Jason Carr, and together they draw upon their vast knowledge of the scores and the stories behind them.
Carr opened the evening with a wonderfully played prelude with no fewer than thirteen references to Bernstein’s work, setting the highly polished tone for the night.
The songstress for the evening is West End lead Sophie-Louise Dann, in fine form displaying her strong flexible voice, excellent movement skills and great versatility. The latter is demonstrated early in contrasting the strident 100 Ways to Lose A Man and I’m A Little Bit in Love, but particularly in the 2nd half of the show with Bernstein’s more contemporary classic style pieces such as Ain’t Got No Tears Left, Take Care of This House and a spine-tingling version of There’s A Place For Us .
Bernstein was inspired by good text, and his rarely presented musical On the Town was represented by a number of comedic songs, including I Can Cook Too, in medley with the most surprising Rabbit at Top Speed from a collection of 19th century French recipes by Emile Dumont. Bernstein set these recipes to music, just to see if a recipe could be taken word-for-word and turned into a decent song. It could, and he did.
Bernstein is best known for his musical theatre pieces, most notably West Side Story, but the evening celebrates a much wider canvass, including Mass, a theatre piece composed by him with additional text and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. It was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy as part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Originally, his intention was to compose a traditional Mass, but he eventually decided on a more innovative form, although much of the liturgical work is sung in Latin. Seckerson told Bernstein that he considered Mass to be his seminal work. Bernstein replied: “Seminal! Now, that’s a critic’s word! But, I’ll kiss you on the lips for it.”. Apparently, this was typical. On meeting the Pope, Bernstein was reminded that he was only meant to kiss the ring.
Much to Bernstein’s chagrin, he felt his music was not taken seriously enough by the music literati of the day. This hurt him, but he continued to “write the music I had to write”, believing passionately in the power of music to transcend social divisions, to move and draw people together.
Seckerson certainly plays his part in aiding our current appreciation of this extraordinary body of work. This is an impeccably researched, informative and very entertaining evening, performed by two of the best artists in London.
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