Bernstein centennial celebration opens with Opera Las Vegas

In his legendary career, Leonard Bernstein played many roles: conductor, pianist, TV star, cultural ambassador.

But it’s his legacy as a composer — of symphonies, operas, ballets, Broadway musicals and beyond — that sparks Southern Nevada celebrations of Bernstein’s centennial. (Events around the world commemorating “Bernstein at 100” began last year and continue through Aug. 25, which would have been his 100th birthday; he died, at 72, in 1990.)

Opera Las Vegas’ “Bravo Bernstein!” — at 3 p.m. Sunday in Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center — leads off the local celebrations with a wide-ranging program spotlighting not only Bernstein’s greatest hits (including the musicals “West Side Story” and “On the Town”) but opera (“Trouble in Tahiti”), 1971’s “Mass” (which opened the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.), even a song (“La Bonne Cuisine: Rabbit at Top Speed”) that provides a melodic setting for, of all things, a recipe.

“Bravo Bernstein!” closes with “Make Our Garden Grow,” the heartfelt finale to Bernstein’s 1956 operetta “Candide” — which the Henderson Symphony Orchestra will present in its entirety May 11.

UNLV’s Wind Orchestra will salute “Bernstein, Bernstein and Associates” on April 19, performing (among other selections) “Make Our Garden Grow,” “Symphonic Dances From ‘West Side Story’ ” and “Slava!” — which Bernstein wrote for his friend, cellist Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich.

And the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s May 19 season finale features Bernstein’s sprightly “Fancy Free: Three Dance Variations.” (The Philharmonic’s 20th season opener offers even more Bernstein: the “Candide” overture and “Symphonic Dances From ‘West Side Story.’ ”)

‘Musical connection’

Although Bernstein’s “serious works aren’t performed as often as they should be,” according to Philharmonic music director Donato Cabrera, “growing up in the U.S., his music — exemplified by ‘West Side Story’ — it’s part of our DNA.”

Growing up in Brazil, Alexandra Arrieche — the Henderson Symphony’s music director — “heard ‘West Side Story’ ” and “fell in love with the brilliance of the music,” she recalls. “It’s so full of energy and passion.”

As conductors, Cabrera and Arrieche have mentors who were Bernstein proteges.

When Cabrera was resident conductor at the San Francisco Symphony, he worked with Michael Tilson Thomas. Bernstein “always treated Michael as a colleague, talking about music and playing piano four-hand,” Cabrera notes. “I feel so lucky — I almost feel like I’m his musical grandson, through my musical connection” with Tilson Thomas.

Arrieche’s mentor at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, music director Marin Alsop (“the first woman to do everything,” Arrieche says) shared tales of Bernstein’s “sense of humor and musicianship,” Arrieche recalls. “He was a fantastic mentor and teacher — a full representation of the word ‘maestro.’ ”

‘He brought so much life to it’

Even those without a direct Bernstein connection learned from the maestro.

“Growing up in a little town in Iowa,” UNLV music professor Thomas Leslie, who conducts the university’s wind ensemble, watched Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” on TV.

“Those inspired me tremendously,” Leslie says. “No matter what style of music it was, he brought so much life to it. Just watching him conduct, watching his face, you never wondered what he was feeling.”

For a composer, Bernstein’s “West Side Story” score is “just the greatest music,” he comments. “When you hear it, you love the tunes, you love the sense of harmony, but seeing how he constructed it all is fascinating.”

In works such as “West Side Story,” Bernstein “bridged the gap between classical and popular music,” notes James Sohre, Opera Las Vegas’ general director, who’s leading — and hosting — Sunday’s “Bravo Bernstein!” performance. “He was among the elite, but down-to-earth. He could compose great music, he could play great music, he could conduct great music — and he could teach great music.”

‘All about being positive’

Bernstein’s musical range is reflected in his 1971 “Mass,” according to Sohre, who cites classical and 12-tone elements, jazz, “street people’s songs” and more. “It’s challenging.”

Beyond that, Bernstein created “fabulous melodies,” adds pianist Spencer Baker, who’s providing the “Bravo Bernstein!” accompaniment. And “the rhythm is so fascinating, how everything fits together.” (Baker and the choir he directs at Green Valley Presbyterian Church also are participating in the Henderson Symphony’s “Candide.”)

Quoting the lyrics to “Make Our Garden Grow” — “we’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good, we’ll do the best we know” — Arrieche cites the “timeless” qualities of Bernstein’s work.

“It’s all about being positive: Let’s get together and build a wonderful world together,” she says. “That message is very important. ”

Coming attractions:

Celebrating Bernstein

Opera Las Vegas’ “Bravo Bernstein!” concert Sunday may be the first Leonard Bernstein centennial salute of the spring, but other upcoming concerts provide ample opportunity to celebrate his gifts as a composer, including:

“Bernstein, Bernstein and Associates” — The 65-member UNLV Wind Orchestra performs “Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story,’ ” the stirring “Candide” finale “Make Our Garden Grow” and “Slava!” — which Bernstein wrote for cellist Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich — along with Bernard Herrmann’s “Death Hunt,” from the 1952 film noir classic “On Dangerous Ground.” 7:30 p.m. April 19 at UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall. ($10; unlv.edu/pac)

“Candide” — It’s the best of all possible worlds as the Henderson Symphony Orchestra presents a concert staging of Bernstein’s operetta based on Voltaire’s 1759 novel, with lyrics by (among others) Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself. 8 p.m. May 11 at the Henderson Pavilion. (Free; hendersonsymphony.org.)

• Philharmonic finale — The Las Vegas Philharmonic’s 2017-18 season finale (which also features Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5) kicks off with Bernstein’s lively “Fancy Free: Three Dance Variations,” from the 1944 ballet (choreographed by Jerome Robbins) that inspired the musical “On the Town.” 7:30 p.m. May 19, Reynolds Hall at The Smith Center. ($30-$109; www.lvphil.org)

• Philharmonic opener — The orchestra opens its 20th season by extending the Bernstein celebration with the irresistible “Candide” overture and “Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story.’ ” (Sept. 15; www.lvphil.org)

Preview

Who: Opera Las Vegas’ “Bravo Bernstein!”

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Cabaret Jazz, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, 361 Symphony Park Ave.

Tickets: $100 (thesmithcenter.com)

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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