Concert Review: Bernstein, Broadway and Beyond! at the Mann Center

The Philadelphia Orchestra concerts at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts are wonderful for many reasons, but on Wednesday, July 18, the weather was perfect and the Mann was full of young families with picnics and many patrons who do not ordinarily go for the more formal atmosphere at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall.

Conductor Kensho Watanabe

We took the SEPTA Mann Loop bus from Juniper Street across from City Hall so we did not have to battle with parking and bonded with our fellow patrons on the long ride. We hopped out and were totally unencumbered, finding we had good seats in the orchestra section, but not too close to the overloud speakers.

The Bernstein Symphonic Dances, which the Philadelphia Orchestra has performed to perfection in the Kimmel Center, did not come off as smoothly in this venue – either because of a lack of rehearsal time or because of the different sound environment or a combination of the two. Nevertheless, even a B-plus performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra is quite enjoyable and Conductor Kensho Watanabe provided smooth and graceful direction from the podium.

The premiere of Darin Atwater’s South Side, Symphonic Dances, which the composer told us was inspired by both West Side Story and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, did not have the flavor and spice of the very singable tunes of Bernstein. (Whatever critics say about the pop tendencies of Bernstein, the man had a knack for creating great tunes.) And Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances have an incredibly rich orchestration and rhythmic inventiveness which Atwater’s South Side Symphonic Dances lack. Still, Atwater’s piece was performed by orchestra alone and perhaps if dancers were performing his nine dances, it would enhance the work’s effect, especially in his attempts to represent the urban experience of African-American youth.

The Bernstein songs presented by the orchestra and baritone Joseph Lattanzi were superb. Lattanzi has a rich and controlled voice and seemed to know how to deal with the startling microphone amplification the Mann had provided. When the songs were instrumental, he sat absolutely motionless. His soprano counterpart, Alexandra Schoeny, however, had more energy than presence. She kept fiddling with her hair which made her seem totally unprofessional, and then screamed into the microphone, especially when she sang “Glitter and be gay” from Bernstein’s musical, Candide. I put in my earplugs in self-defense.

Mann Center

The concert concluded with one of the best performances I have ever seen of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with pianist Stewart Goodyear as soloist. Mr. Goodyear treated Gershwin’s score with the same respect he would have given to a Bach fugue – bringing every voice and counter-rhythm into clarity, sometimes slowing a phrase down to a largo and in other sections playing as fast as humanly possible. I have heard Mr. Goodyear play his own superbly crafted modern and jazzy cadenzas to a Mozart piano concerto in the past, and it was a delight to hear him reverse the process and put the most elegant classical spin on George Gershwin’s jazzy Rhapsody.  I doubt that even Leonard Bernstein, who played the piano solo some decades ago, could have matched the supert pianistic panache of Mr. Goodyear’s performance.

Stewart Goodyear

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