The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

Last Friday’s
splendid Bernstein bonanza with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra will surely
be one of this year’s festival highlights. Besides Bernstein’s
soundtrack for the 1954 Marlon Brando movie On the Waterfront, there
were extracts from Candide and West Side Story, and solos and
duets from the musicals On The Town, Wonderful Town and
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The first fearless bars of “New York, New York”, arranged as a
duet for tenor Julian Ovenden and baritone Nadim Naaman, tipped the Amsterdam
audience that it was in for an outsized musical theatre experience. One of the
top orchestras in the world in bold, swinging mode and a deluxe quartet of
entertainers – it’s a formula that could hardly go wrong. But it
was conductor John Wilson, straight-backed and outwardly cool, who seamlessly
piloted this evening of sass and glamour, repeating a similar success he had at
the 2015 BBC Proms with his own band, the John Wilson Orchestra. With laconic
gestures he kept rhythms clean and urgent and performed dynamic sorcery.
Transformed into a super big band (with five percussionists!), the RCO never
upstaged the singers. Scarlett Strallen’s vocally fragile lullaby from
Peter Pan, “Dream With Me”, quivered on soft, lush
strings. When Julian Ovenden sang an ardent yet intimate “Maria”
from West Side Story, the musicians followed his lead, flooding the
hall with sound as his shiny tenor opened up, and slinking to a whisper with
his final, beautifully sustained piano.

On their own, the RCO turned the obligatory overture to the operetta
Candide into a light and sparkly frolic. In the symphonic suite from
On the Waterfront Wilson hammered out the climaxes with accurate
savagery.  The elegiac solo themes rang out with primeval beauty, the horn
solo, placed offstage, particularly haunting. Heard live, the piece reveals its
debt to the rhythmic structure of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring,
but also Bernstein’s quintessentially American originality.
 The orchestra visibly enjoyed the lively musical numbers. When
it was their turn to play “The Dance At the Gym” from West Side
several orchestra members rocked uninhibitedly to the infectious
mambo and cha-cha beats. Every deserving musical score should get such a
24-carat orchestral treatment once in a while. The vocal performances, varied
in mood and style, were just as exhilarating. Nadim Naaman sang “Lonely
Town” with winning melancholy. After her tentative lullaby, Scarlett
Strallen was absolutely charming in “A Little Bit In Love”. 
Her showpiece, “Glitter and Be Gay”, was a brilliant send-up of an
operatic aria. She exaggerated coloratura notes with glottal chugs and crashed
downward scales hilariously into a guttural chest register. Glittering of gown
and voice, she securely pinned all the high C’s, D’s and E flats
and earned herself a huge applause.

Contrasting with Strallen’s diamond-point vocalism, Kim Criswell lent
her turbine-driven voice and huge personality to a gallery of feisty women. As
touching as she was in the ballad “Take Care of This House”, from
Bernstein’s last composition for Broadway (and famous flop), 1600
Pennsylvania Avenue
, it was her pizzazz in assertive, jazzy numbers that
set the stage on fire. Both taxi driver Hildy’s imperative seduction
catalogue “I Can Cook Too” and writer Ruth’s sardonic
“One Hundred Easy Ways To Lose A Man” were irresistibly vivid. With
unerring phrasing and a chameleon-like persona Criswell draws characters so
rich that she makes you forget you’re listening to musical numbers out of
context. From the robust top notes to the chocolate bourbon chest voice, her
instrument is a dazzling vocal carousel. Her shifts though the various musical
idioms – jazz, musical, operetta ­– seemed effortless. An
intuitive comic, she sang the Old Lady’s Tango from Candide with
a hyperbolic Spanish accent and full, throbbing tone. In “Island
Magic” from the opera Trouble in Tahiti Criswell’s arms
were as eloquent as her voice as they traced Dinah’s mockery of, and
submission to, escapist silver screen entertainment. Supported by the other
soloists as the trio, she was utterly magnetic, painting the scenography with
her hands and swaying to her mighty Polynesian vocalise.

Criswell and Strallen ended the official program with a bouncy “Wrong
Note Rag”, but the delighted audience naturally wanted more.  They
got two encores, the philosophical resignation quartet “Some Other
Time” from On The Town and the “Tonight” quintet
from West Side Story as a quartet. “Anita’s gonna get her
kicks tonight”, sang Criswell. And she was not the only one who got

Jenny Camilleri

Performance information:

Kim Criswell, soprano; Scarlett Strallen, soprano; Julian Ovenden, tenor;
Nadim Naaman, baritone. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Conductor: John Wilson.
Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Friday, 7th July 2017.

image_description=Leonard Bernstein
product_title=The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Leonard Bernstein