WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) with Wynton Marsalis paid tribute to American composer Leonard Bernstein at the Kennedy Center on May 20 in a program that splendidly celebrated the 100th year of the maestro’s birth.
Showcasing some of Bernstein’s most well-known works, the evening was a portrait of excellence that proved why JLCO is one of the finest big bands performing today. From its kickoff with Bernstein’s operetta “Candide” to its conclusion with Bernstein’s most popular and critically acclaimed musical, “West Side Story,” the evening featured one delicious musical morsel after another.
Born on August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts., Bernstein was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States to receive worldwide acclaim. He wrote in many styles encompassing symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and pieces for the piano.
Under the direction of Marsalis, JLCO’s managing and artistic director, the orchestra, comprised of 15 of the finest jazz soloists and ensemble players today, wowed a Concert Hall audience that showed its appreciation with thunderous applause with each brilliantly played solo, or by swaying along enthusiastically to the hard-swinging and mesmerizing beats.
Trombonist Vincent R. Gardner served as the narrator for the evening and gave the audience insight into the music selected, charismatically describing how he and Richard DeRosa arranged the music, and how Bernstein came to compose the tune.
“Ain’t Got No Tears Left,” from “On The Town,” was written to show the emotions that surface when sailors come to town, break a girl’s heart, then leave. Slow, lazy and full of detachment, the trombone and drum solos appropriately set the mood.
On “Conversation Piece,” Gardner explained that Bernstein composed the tune to show a conversation between two women and two men that suddenly becomes exceptionally awkward. With fitful starts and stops, and pulsating with a ragtime feel, the tune featured Carlos Henriquez on bass, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet and Dan Nimmer on piano.
The band turned to “West Side Story” for a salsa-like “Mambo,” and Henriquez’ arrangement was delivered with passion. Gardner pointed out that Bernstein loved jazz, noting that his “Lucky to Be Me” was one of Bernstein’s most swinging and most enduring jazz compositions. Jason Marsalis on drums and Henriquez on bass ably delivered the goods.
Gardner stated that Bernstein was deeply connected to his Jewish faith and, after graduating from Harvard, composed his first large orchestral piece. “Jeremiah’s Song,” taken from the Book of Lamentations, was a warning from the Prophet Jeremiah to the Israelites of Babylon’s fall. Mournful, full of wails, yet hopeful at the same time, the number featured an outstanding soprano sax solo by Walter Blanding.
“Gloria De Excelsis” from Bernstein’s “Mass,” commissioned by Jackie Kennedy to inaugurate the John F. Kennedy Center in 1971 as a national showcase for the performing arts, was dramatic and even theatrical, filled with a profusion of pieces of music and moods.
The concert concluded with a rousing “Somewhere” that featured a delightful interplay between Nimmer and trombonist Elliott Mason, leaving Bernstein and jazz fans satisfied and satiated.