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Bernstein tribute at Blossom leaves admirers wishing for more

08.25.08
Jamie Bernstein
Cleveland Plain Dealer

How do we miss Leonard Bernstein? Let us count the ways. The late American contributed so much to music on so many fronts that it's difficult to know where to begin. Along with the vast discography of concert and operatic works he conducted, we can be sure that Bernstein's Broadway scores will endure.

The Blossom Festival Orchestra and guests focused on the musical-theater aspect Sunday at Blossom Music Center with Jamie Bernstein, the composer's daughter, as high-energy narrator. In several respects, she resembles her dad -- irrepressible, feisty and game for just about anything.

The host told Bernstein tidbits and read fascinating letters between father and mother while dad was working furiously on "West Side Story." She also took part in several numbers, such as "Swing!" from "Wonderful Town."

Bernstein, who would have been 90 on Monday, wrote theater tunes that are among the richest in the canon. He created these scores amid conducting stints and other projects. Should Bernstein have devoted more time to the theater and less to the concert stage? A discussion might fill volumes.

At least we have the four stage works that Sunday's concert surveyed with the Blossom ensemble, conductor Loras John Schissel and a quintet of excellent singers: soprano Michelle Areyzaga, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash, tenor Jeffrey Picon and baritones David McFerrin and Brian Keith Johnson.

Last week's pops concert had found the Blossom Festival Orchestra in buoyant shape, but it largely sounded under-rehearsed and tentative in the Bernstein program. Only in the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" did Schissel and company begin to get under the skin of this rapturously lyrical and galvanic music.

But the singers provided ample delight. Areyzaga, a soprano of gleaming gifts, was disarming in "A Little Bit in Love" ("Wonderful Town") and soaring in "One Hand, One Heart" ("West Side Story"), the latter with Picon, whose tenor is fresh and ardent, aside from some weakness in the low register.

Shammash took on the Ruth role in "Swing!" to daffy effect, switched gears to play a lusty Hildy in "Come Up to My Place" ("On the Town") and made noble work of "Somewhere" ("West Side Story"). McFerrin used his vibrant baritone expressively, whether he was called upon to be love-struck or dumb, while Johnson joined his colleagues sonorously in the "Tonight" quintet.

At evening's end, narrator Bernstein, the singers and Schissel paid tribute to the region with "Ohio," Ruth and Eileen's nostalgic lament from "Wonderful Town." The "why-oh-why-oh-why-oh" lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were mentioned. Stephen Sondheim, lyricist of "West Side Story," was not. Why-oh?