Beauty Beyond Time, Beyond Place
By Bryce Christensen
“Any great art work,” declared the great composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, “ . . . revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world—the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.” Exulting in that “strange, special air,” hundreds of music lovers gathered in Cedar City’s Heritage Center on the night of November 8th for a concert performed by the Orchestra of Southern Utah (OSU) in celebration of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth. Aptly devoted to the theme “Timeless Drama,” this concert compellingly reminded listeners of the marvelous timelessness of Bernstein’s musical readaptation of time and space. But during the evening’s program, OSU’s talented musicians also demonstrated to listeners that great composers besides Bernstein have shared his power to revive and readapt time in ways that draw listeners into delightful new worlds.
Indeed, even before the evening’s concert began, local pianist Cody Stratton had set the tone for the evening with lobby music that defied the limits of time and space, blending together a musical potpourri of classical music and his own delightful creations. Carrying listeners out of the concert hall to a sylvan world beneath the stars, Stratton’s “Campfire Bird” especially prepared listeners for an evening of musical transports.
In welcoming the audience to the concert, OSU president Harold Shirley first focused on the music written by Leroy Anderson, a 20th-century American composer who shared with his more famous contemporary Bernstein a great power to revive and readapt time and space. Fittingly, Shirley promised that the two Anderson compositions the orchestra was about to play would stir nostalgia as they took listeners back to the simpler and less factious America of Fifties.
While listening to Anderson’s “Blue Tango,” many in the audience might well have sworn they were back in Manhattan Center in 1952 when Hugo Winterhalter and his orchestra launched this composition into enduring fame. Named for a dance renowned for the close embrace maintained by couples performing it, this number became a harmonic tango that kept flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, violins, violas, cellos, and all of the other instruments very close in an exacting musical choreography rendered deceptively effortless. OSU assistant conductor Adam Lambert demonstrated superb skill in wielding the baton keeping the entire orchestra in perfect synchrony. Somewhere the shade of Winterhalter must have looked down--and listened in--with warm approval. Swaying in sympathetic response to the exotic rhythms revived and readapted from an earlier era, many in the 21st-century audience would have leaped to the dance floor had one been open to them.
In turning next to Anderson’s “Belle of the Ball,” the orchestra maintained the dance theme, but did so while reviving and readapting a very different time and place. Explaining that in “Belle of the Ball” he had sought to recapture the enchantment of Viennese waltzes, Anderson gave Lambert and the musicians under his direction a number that drew from the strains of Strauss and other masters of the waltz the beguiling inspiration for ethereal elegance, melodious and otherworldly. Long a mainstay of the repertoire of the Boston Pops, Anderson’s “Belle” afforded Lambert and the Orchestra of Southern Utah an opportunity to do a collective impersonation of the famous Boston orchestra that was every bit as convincing as their previous impersonation of Winterhalter’s ensemble! Leaving an enraptured audience unsure whether they were in 21st-century Cedar City, 20th- century Manhattan or Boston, or 19th-century Vienna, OSU delivered both Anderson standards in all their enthralling loveliness.
Time and space yielded to artistic wizardry in a different fashion in the concert’s final pre-intermission number--Antonio Capuzzi’s Concerto in D Major. As Shirley explained in his prefatory remarks, this time-dissolving work conveys the brilliance of a musical era when the Baroque metamorphosed into the Classical. Originally written in Italy for the double bass, this selection captured the audience as the occasion for a remarkable solo performance by trombonist Michelle Lambert. With admirable poise and skill, Lambert rendered every 18th-century flourish with 21st century verve. Lambert moved from the profound depths of her instrument’s lower register into the mellower tones of its higher notes with liquid grace. Particularly brilliant in the kinetic final measures, Lambert’s singular virtuosity captivated all who heard it. But perhaps no one found greater pleasure in hearing her memorable solo than did the man on the conductor’s platform: Adam Lambert, whose identity as the soloist’s husband made him the ideal conductor for this number. Never were musical and marital concord more beautifully joined!
In welcoming concertgoers back to the hall after intermission, Shirley spoke glowingly of the composer especially honored this night: Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein, Shirley explained, was a composer whose genius could not be hidden, even during an era of McCarthyist hysteria and cowardice.
That genius shone brightly as the orchestra performed Bernstein’s Overture to ‘Candide,’ a composition demonstrating how the composer’s art could revive and readapt the imaginative vision of the Enlightenment satirist Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet). Taken from a light opera based on a mercilessly ironic novel by the French philosopher, Bernstein’s overture readapted the time and space of an Enlightenment satire in the dynamic rhythms of 20th-century drama, so exposing the hypocrisies and deceptions of the composer’s own time. Under the always-impassioned and inspiring baton of OSU conductor Xun Sun, OSU’s percussion section rose to the challenge of the complex rhythms of this daunting number, as drums and cymbals together played off the rest of the orchestra, taut with the irresistible energy of its cadences. As the concert hall pulsed with the sprightliness of this ever-popular work, concert-goers occupied a time and place stunningly distant from modern Iron County.
But Bernstein’s skill in reviving and readapting time and space manifested itself most spectacularly in the evening’s final number: just as enchanting in 2018 as it was when first performed more than sixty years ago, Bernstein’s music for Symphonic Dances from West Side Story dazzled listeners as it revived and readapted the time and space that once were Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, reconceived as inter-ethnic romance in a blue-collar neighborhood in 20th-century New York City. In the soaring lyricism of “Tonight,” listeners thrilled to that incomparable moment when young love first knows itself. In the stirring Latin rhythms of “Maria,” they shared a passion transcending ethnic prejudice. In “America,” they felt anew the irresistible appeal of a land that nurtures lofty aspirations; and in “One Hand, One Heart,” they joined in the tender hopes of a vulnerable couple anticipating marriage, blissfully unaware of the tragedy awaiting them. Under Sun’s versatile directing, the OSU instrumentalists performed all of the iconic passages from Bernstein’s West Side score with a sureness of interpretive touch that put the audience back in time to 1957 and away in geography to Broadway, where Bernstein’s genius helped make this play a blockbuster.
At the evening’s close, as concert-goers filed out of the Heritage Center, they reflected on how a half-dozen musical numbers, unforgettably performed, had transported them to readapted times and spaces, making them happy if temporary inhabitants of astonishing imaginative realms outside of their habitual chronology and geography. These satisfied concert-goers felt deeply indebted to Xun Sun, Adam Lambert, Michelle Lambert and all the other OSU performers, and the Sorenson Legacy Foundation and other concert sponsors for having afforded them the opportunity to experience the air of a rare Cedar City night in November as something intoxicatingly strange and special.