Carnegie Hall Celebrates Bernstein With Candide Gala Performance

Classic Arts Features   Carnegie Hall Celebrates Bernstein With Candide Gala Performance
The April 18 performance features Paul Appleby, Erin Morley, Patricia Racette, John Lithgow, and special guests.
Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein Photo by Paul de Heuck, courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most dazzling and protean musicians America has ever produced. Emerging as a stunningly gifted composer and conductor at a time when the age of television was dawning and a multitude of unprecedented new possibilities were available to musicians, he had the energy and formidable range of talents to exploit them all to the fullest.

From the very beginning, Bernstein served notice that he was not going to be a conventional artist content simply with a career in the classical concert hall. On November 14, 1943, he made his legendary conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, stepping in with less than 24-hours notice to replace the ailing Bruno Walter. His success was front-page news on The New York Times the next morning. Less than two months later (January 28, 1944), his Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under his baton. And on April 18, 1944, his ballet collaboration with Jerome Robbins, Fancy Free, was unveiled by Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) at the old Metropolitan Opera House. By the end of the year, he had turned the ballet’s scenario of three sailors on shore leave in the Big Apple into the full-blown Broadway hit On the Town. He was only 25, and there seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do—and do brilliantly.

Bernstein then proceeded compiling an unparalleled track record of breaking down barriers—between classical and popular music in his compositions ranging from West Side Story to his Mass, between general audiences of all ages and the classical canon with his live and televised Young People’s Concerts, and between nations around the world. When he was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, he smashed the barricade against American conductors assuming the leadership of major American orchestras. And one of the most unforgettable highlights of his career came on Christmas Day 1989—a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall—when he gathered musicians from West and East Germany together in East Berlin for a glorious concert of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in which the word Freude (“joy”) was changed to Freiheit (“freedom”).

It’s not surprising, then, that Leonard Bernstein’s centennial celebration should be an event of extraordinary worldwide dimensions. Indeed, it is lasting a full two years, beginning with his 99th birthday on August 25, 2017, and continuing until that date in August 2019. And it encompasses thousands of concerts and other activities in scores of countries, including virtually every nation in North America and Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, New Zealand, as well as South Africa and several others on the African continent.

Though Carnegie Hall’s 2017–2018 season is liberally filled with Bernstein works, its celebration culminates on April 18 with a gala performance of his opera Candide, starring Paul Appleby, Erin Morley, Patricia Racette, William Burden, and the revered actor John Lithgow, backed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and led by Rob Fisher. As tenor Jerry Hadley, who sang the title role on Bernstein’s 1989 recording of the opera, said, “I personally think that Candide is the most fitting legacy that Leonard Bernstein could have. It’s so much an extension of everything he was—it’s eclectic, it’s witty, it’s profound, it’s irreverent, it’s tongue-in-cheek one moment and innocent and full of childlike wonder the next.”

Candide was the problem child of Bernstein’s creative career, the work he called a stone in his shoe. A relative failure on Broadway during its first production in the winter of 1956–1957, it was also paradoxically the work that meant the most to him. As he said, “There’s more of me in that piece than anything else I have ever done.” For the rest of his life, he kept coming back to Candide, trying—and eventually succeeding—in proving to the world its quality and its ability to appeal to a large audience.

The opera’s book is based on the French philosopher-writer Voltaire’s slender but incendiary novella: a savagely satirical attack on the positivist philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz that everything that happens in this world is divinely ordered and for the best. Voltaire was goaded into writing this picaresque story by the horrific events of 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal, when a great earthquake killed tens of thousands of people and subsequent religious persecutions slaughtered thousands more. Candide, a naive and pure-hearted youth, had been taught by his tutor that “all is for the best in this world” and clings stubbornly to this faith despite being buffeted by wars, pestilence, crime, and intolerance as he hurtles from country to country in Europe and the New World. Finally, stripped of his illusions, he returns to his native Westphalia and weds his equally battered sweetheart, determined to cultivate his garden and seek modest pleasures in an imperfect world.

Turning Voltaire’s brilliantly caustic novella into a Broadway musical was the idea of the great playwright Lillian Hellman. She initially saw the project as a vehicle for protesting the infamous activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. Bernstein, however, saw a much broader and more timeless relevance in this story, reflecting a world that keeps cycling into and out of natural disasters and the reign of human cruelty.

Opening at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theater on December 1, 1956, Candide was perhaps too intellectually weighty to appeal to a broad audience and closed after just 73 performances. It was soon eclipsed by the huge success of West Side Story later in 1957. But this was far from the end of Candide’s story. Over the next three decades, various revivals were mounted, and each time, both book and music were significantly altered. Bernstein was not involved in a stripped-down version of the show produced and directed by Hal Prince in 1973, which ran on Broadway for more than 700 performances. He was, however, very actively involved in extensive revisions for Candide’s 1982 and 1988 productions at the New York City Opera and the Scottish Opera, respectively, which restored the work to the operatic dimensions he’d originally envisioned. Both productions were warmly embraced by audiences and critics. As his last word on this beloved work, Bernstein, now fatally ill with cancer, made an acclaimed studio recording of Candide in 1989 with the London Symphony Orchestra and a cast of international opera stars.

Bernstein called Candide a “Valentine card to European music.” The scintillating score is a pastiche of musical styles, both classical and popular, conjured up by a musical magpie who could borrow from the vast store of music he knew and frequently conducted. And Candide’s last musical word, “Make Our Garden Grow,” is completely from the heart, voiced in Bernstein’s soaring, utterly personal lyrical style that blossomed so memorably throughout his lifetime.

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