MOAB MUSIC FESTIVAL, “Leonard Bernstein: From the Theater to the Concert Hall,” Star Hall, September 9; festival concludes Sept. 10, 435-259-7003, www.moabmusicfest.org
As a mentor to Moab Music Festival founder and music director Michael Barrett, Leonard Bernstein’s music has been featured on numerous occasions during the festival’s 20-year history. So it’s actually quite fitting that the festival’s last formal concert of the year (there will be a final grotto concert Monday afternoon) should be devoted to the music of this American icon.
The program represented the late composer’s concert and stage music in a nutshell. Bernstein wrote a lot of music so deciding what to play is an immense challenge, but Barrett chose well. The highlight of the evening, however, was a fully staged performance of Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s bitterly witty and sophisticated one-act opera that painfully depicts a marriage on the rocks.
But before that, the audience in a sold out Star Hall were treated to a cornucopia of Bernstein’s music.
The program opened with Barrett at the piano playing selections from Anniversaries, brief vignettes of people the composer knew. These short pieces range from the boldly angular (William Kapell) to the delightfully lyrical (Stephen Sondheim).
Next clarinetist Derek Bermel and pianist Eric Zivian tackled the Clarinet Sonata, a demanding work that they played with precision, clarity and cleanly defined articulation.
Young violinist Charles Yang, joined by Barrett and Zivian, followed playing the wonderfully lyrical “Agathon” movement from Serenade. Yang captured the expressiveness of the delicately molded phrasings with his sensitive playing.
Rounding out the first half was a triple play of songs from Bernstein’s musicals, sung by a trio of very talented young artists from the University of Utah: tenor Lucas Goodrich (“Zizi’s Lament” from Songfest); baritone Daniel Tuutau (“Pass the Football” from Wonderful Town); and soprano Jennifer Erickson (“Dream with Me” from Peter Pan).
After intermission Barrett played the unpublished “Meditation Before a Wedding” as an overture to Trouble in Tahiti, then switched out the piano bench for the conductor’s podium and led a powerful ensemble of singers and instrumentalists in Bernstein’s hour-long show.
Trouble in Tahiti is a forgotten gem of the stage. Although it’s played occasionally (and there have been a couple of performances of it in Utah over the years), it’s been unduly neglected. It’s a wickedly funny piece with serious undertones. It defies being easily categorized and that’s perhaps why it’s been overlooked.
For Sunday’s performance, Barrett assembled a strong group of singers and instrumentalists. Erickson, Goodrich and Tuutau, the three young vocalists from the U., sang the role of the chorus. They brought humor and a fine palette of expressions to their singing.
As the bickering married couple were baritone Kelly Markgraff as Sam and mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson as Dinah. They sang with feeling and conviction and brought finely crafted subtlety to their respective roles.
Barrett elicited a commanding performance from the chamber orchestra. His direction was on the mark and captured the nuances of the score superbly.
Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, was the stage director. Her bare bones direction and the minimalist props placed the focus of the show directly and correctly on the singers and music.