John Mauceri conducts the ČNSO at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts

Czech National Symphony Orchestra performs at Schwartz Center, Candler Series announces 2019-20 season

Mark Gresham | 18 FEB 2019

This past Friday evening, Emory University’s Flora Glenn Candler Concert Series hosted the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (Český národní symfonický orchestr), under the direction of conductors John Mauceri and Steven Mercurio, featuring mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. The concert at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts was the ČNSO’s third stop on their current 15-concert US tour, running from February 11 through March 5.

The first half of he program was Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, led by Mercurio. It’s a piece frequently played by American orchestras, but the opportunity to hear a Czech orchestra play it in an American concert hall was insightful.

Steven Mercurio leads the ČNSO in Dvořák's Symphony No. 9

Steven Mercurio leads the ČNSO in Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (photo: Carl Christie)

While it might have been more interesting for ČNSO to have performed one of less frequently heard Dvořák symphonies, or one of the symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů (which are almost never heard in the US), there is a certain gratitude due to the ČNSO for offering audiences their take on this most “American” symphony by the Czech master, written as it was in this country. That is especially so by its sharing the program with a second half that honored the birth centenary of American composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.

That latter part, conducted by Mauceri, began with a 2-minute fanfare entitled “A Musical Toast!” which Bernstein wrote in 1980 as a tribute to André Kostelanetz, a Russian-born orchestral pops conductor who had commissioned several works from the composer. In their tour materials, the ČNSO appended “ Happy Birthday, Lenny!” to the title – a phrase they spoke together in rhythm at one point in the piece.

No surprise that Mauceri conducted this half, given that he was a protégé of Bernstein and through that is closely connected to much of Bernstein’s music – most notably the 1973 Chelsea version of Bernstein’s Candide and subsequent expanded version for New York City Opera, as well as conducting the original performances of the once-act opera, A Quiet Place (a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti).

After that brief bit of flourish with the honorific “Toast,” Mauceri and the ČNSO launched into the familiar Overture to Candide, taken at a rather fast clip, with a feeling of pushing forward rather than holding back just a little to enjoy the overture’s tunes and rhythms.

Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano

Isabel Leonard

Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard then joined the orchestra to sing three vocal selection by Bernstein: “Dream with Me” from Peter Pan – not to be confused with the famous 1954 musical starring Mary Martin, but a different, earlier musical adaptation from 1950 starring Jean Arthur as Peter Pan and Boris Karloff in the dual roles of George Darling and Captain Hook. The show had a total run of 321 performances, but was eclipsed by the more popular musical that came later.

“Dream with Me” was written to be Wendy Darling’s song, but it was one number among about an hour’s worth of Bernstein’s score that was cut out of the show to accommodate the limited singing abilities of the cast. The largely unperformed full score for this Peter Pan, including “Dream with Me,” was only rediscovered and restored by conductor Arthur Frey in 2000, then recorded and released on a CD in 2005. Hence this vocal gem, fortunately, did not wind up in the dustbin of history.

A much better-known show-stopper, “What a Movie!” from the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, provided a great deal of comic relief and gave Ms. Leonard a chance to act up, both theatrically and vocally. She held her nose to produce a buzzy melismatic “Ah!” in parody of a crowd South Pacific natives, something Bernstein could not as easily have gotten away with in the 21st century but not raise a bit of protest when it was written in 1951.

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As the last song of the triad came “Take Care of This House” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – a 1976 musical that became legendary as a Broadway flop, running a total of seven performances before shutting its doors. It was Bernstein’s final attempt at an original Broadway score.

Leonard’s singing was one of the true highlights of the concert. Her lovely, liquid voice, smooth rich tone and phrasing made her renditions of the Bernstein songs a standout delight amid the rest of the program.

Mauceri orchestra followed with the climactic number, the ever-popular Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Even with the likes of Mauceri at the helm, it’s a piece that require an intuitive American stylistic insight as much as the music of Dvořák better served by a Czech cultural perspective. The litmus test is the “Cool” section – whether or not it is “really hot” (as “Cool” should be, like a pressure cooker that builds steam and finally bursts its lid in a Stan Kenton-like frenzy) or just bouncy and swingy, as it often is when too squarely played in 4/4 rather than bordering on an urgent alla breve momentum, which makes all the difference.

Emerson Hall, Schwartz Center for Performing Arts

Emerson Hall, Schwartz Center for Performing Arts
(photo: Emory University)

Leonard returned to the stage to join Mauceri and the orchestra in a pair of encores: the “Love Theme” from On the Waterfront – Bernstein’s only original film score not adapted from a stage production with songs – and the iconic “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

Also at Friday’s performance, the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts announced the lineup for its 2019-2020 Flora Glenn Candler Concert Series:

  • Saturday, September 14, 2019: Kronos Quartet with Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vande – Music for Change
  • Friday, October 18 : pianist Brad Mehldau and tenor Ian Bostridge
  • Sunday, November 3: mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato – War & Peace: Harmony Through Music
  • Wednesday, January 15: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with pianist Khatia Buniatishvili
  • Saturday, February 29: classical guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas and his Americano Trio
  • Thursday, March 19: flutist, saxophonist and pianist Jane Bunnett and Maqueque
  • Friday, April 10: violinist Robert McDuffie and pianist Robert Spano

Further details can be found online at  ■

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