Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 next year. He and SF Symphony musical director Michael Tilson-Thomas were buddies. Lenny considered MTT his musical son. Not coincidentally, the Symphony will present a slew of Bernstein-themed programs throughout the season. Indeed the opener of Opening night was Candide‘s overture. It keeps going this week with the West Side Story symphonic dances, the Chichester Psalms, and one of Lenny’s last major pieces, Arias and Barcaroles.
The latter piece is titled after President Eisenhower, for whom Bernstein performed at the White House. Ike grouchily preferred the Rhapsody in Blue to a Mozart Concerto (“I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles,” the president apparently said). Rather than taking offense for the dis of Mozart, Lenny used the quip creatively. A&B is scored for baritone, mezzo, and arranged for orchestra. The mezzo this week will be Isabel Leonard. She is a regular on the stage of the Met and was last seen with SF Opera as a luminous Rosina and with the Symphony in a series of memorable concert excerpts of Thomas Ades’s The Tempest. She is a recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker award, given yearly to the most promising American singer. She chatted with SFist about the Symphony series and her all-Bernstein recital hosted by SF Performances on October 1st.
SFist: You will be singing Arias and Barcarolles with the SF Symphony this week. What should we look forward to?
Isabel Leonard: I don’t really know how to describe it. It is a piece that has, in my humble opinion, it has many different types of color. Leonard Bernstein intimates a lot of musical techniques in his writing. Some of it would remind the listener of the pieces they might know, that are considered as popular. Other moments are rhythmically and harmonically more complicated and quite modern and new. It’s a fun 35 minutes of music. It’s quite different from anything I’ve learned from Bernstein.
I would definitely say that Little Smary is very much a children song, like a mother talking to a child. Then one of the songs later toward the end of the piece where the baritone and I sing together, we are the parents of the boy that I’m yelling at at the beginning.
Part of Arias and Barcarolles was dedicated to MTT, and he was really close with Bernstein. Did he give you special insights into the piece?
No, we are meeting tomorrow morning actually to discuss this. Most of the time that’s how it happens.
MTT recorded it with Flicka, did you hear that?
I have heard it. It’s lovely to hear a singer that I know doing this piece. Flicka is a friend of mine. Anytime you listen to a piece conducted by the very conductor you are about to work with, you feel like you are getting very good notes just listening to it.
They will do some West Side Story, but only the symphonic dances. Any bit you would have liked to sing there?
I sang West Side Story many years ago when I was in high school, and I’m going to be singing it in two weeks in Philadelphia with Yannick [Nezet-Seguin].
You will sing some excerpts during your recital with SF Performances on Oct 1st; how did you curate that program?
It takes time to do these things. I essentially listened to all of the music that I could get my hands on that Bernstein wrote. Many of his songs, and all his musical theater. I listened to it over and over again, and picked pieces that I liked and enjoyed. I tried to put them together in a way that would be interesting to me and the audience hopefully.
For me, it’s about the words and the storytelling and putting this together. I look for songs where I obviously enjoy the text first and foremost. When I have a group of songs, however many songs would built a whole recital, I sort of see it if they start to create some sense just by looking at them. Maybe I’ll notice some songs are similar in their text. They talk about children for example. I realize this in the voice of a child, and this is from the perspective of a child. Then I have a set of songs that I dubbed Bernstein from a child’s perspective. I go along the music that away. I see what other kinds of groups start to appear to me as I look at the music.
In the program, after the title of So Pretty, there is a parenthesis: “1968 anti-war song first performed by Barbra Streisand.” Are you making a point there?
I loved the song and I loved the text, it’s just gorgeous. Listen to the song, it’s beautiful, simple and to the point. That to me is worth sharing with other people. It may have been at the time a song that was written as a comment on the Vietnam War. The words, the text, are timeless. It is always true today. This is why we repeat music and we sing the same songs. Because they continue to hold true today. History repeats itself. If we don’t learn from our history, how can we continue to evolve?
The lyrics in one of these child perspective songs go: “Music is a lot of men in a lot of tails, making lots of noise like a lot of females; Music is a lot of folks in a big dark hall, where they really don’t want to be at all.” You are sure to get some laugh there. But aren’t the lyrics a bit offensive?
I don’t know if the audience will laugh. We’ll see. I think that all the texts are very different and there is a lot of different music on the recital. There are provocative texts in music by so many composers across the board. This set of children songs comes from the voice a child. You can hear the voice of a kid saying “I hate music, I don’t like opera, I don’t want to listen to that yelling and screaming.” Because that’s a child perspective.
In general, not talking specifically about Bernstein, but some operas, some lyrics have not aged well. Is that an issue for you?
There is a lot of history. The way we describe things at different points in history evolves. This year and next year, we decide that the way we have been describing maybe one culture, now we can’t no longer describe them the way we could. If you think of the music of that period, all the descriptive words are in there and therefore people think it’s provocative. Now you are saying things or talking about things in a way which now has been decided is no longer PC or acceptable. Therefore we think it’s provocative. Again, we are dealing with music that was written from different time periods. While it is important is to look at the words, the language that was used, go beyond the superficial thing of the language, and ask whether you feel that you are insulted or not by something that was written before your time and go to the deeper meaning of the piece.
There are plenty provocative things. Schoenberg wrote all the Cabaret songs, they were primessentially provocative, people would say. Or some of the messages in opera were written at different time period as a result of a political commentary. Music and arts have always been intertwined with the social and political temperature of society at a given point.
You haven’t been back to SF Opera since Barber in 2013? Anything in the works?
Not at the moment. I’d love to come back. You are more than welcome to tell the opera to bring me back. I haven’t met the new general director [Matthew Shilvock] yet.