Infused with Bernstein, Aspen transforms into Eden | AspenTimes.com
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Infused with Bernstein, Aspen transforms into Eden

Eben Harrell

There’s an inscription on a bench outside the Benedict Music Tent that reads, “When God closed Eden, He opened Aspen.”Aspenites are prone to this sort of braggadocio. They love to prattle on about Aspen’s oh-so-rare cosmopolitan culture without the cosmopolitan corruption. It’s an absurd notion, of course: Eden’s entrance was not marked by a traffic jam on Main Street.But for one rip-roaring night on Saturday, as this small town’s tent was filled with Broadway’s big-city best, it was easy to be swayed into this sort of thinking. And it’s a good thing too. The concert, a compilation of songs by the American composer Leonard Bernstein (he of “West Side Story” and “On the Town”), was the festival’s main benefit n see Bernstein on page A7– continued from page A1event, with tickets going for as much as $500 each. As a result of Saturday’s concert alone, the festival hoped to raise around $300,000.Cynics may question the choice of the program for one of the most elite classical music festivals in the world. Bernstein, after all, is no Wagnerian heavyweight. He’s the sort of composer who proves a popular choice for a typical high school orchestra concert, something to keep the parents (or Aspen’s rich) awake.But that Bernstein managed to fuse classical music and popular theater should not undermine his value, even among the most elite artists. “Tonight, Tonight” from West Side Story is as beautiful as anything in “Romeo and Juliet,” and probably a little less soppy. The finale to his light opera “Candide” is as sophisticated as anything penned by Voltaire.It was particularly impressive to hear Bernstein performed by a full symphony orchestra. Aspen Music Festival director David Zinman conducted, and relished the experience.Zinman, known for his intensity on the podium and his hunched shoulders and furrowed brows, was transformed for the evening. In between songs he entertained and regaled the audience with the help of a flawless script written by festival conductor Murry Sidlin. Who would have guessed? Papa Zinman with a gift for gab.It was also a treat to hear the students from the festival’s Art Song and Vocal Performance Program. These singers don’t usually make it to the tent stage during the summer and have only one date at Harris Hall. Front stage in front of a packed tent, they hammed it up to the extreme – when they weren’t singing, they were play-acting, dancing, doing anything possible to enjoy the spotlight. It was charming to watch.In performance of Bernstein, however, the opera singers didn’t get it quite right. Esther Heideman, a professional opera singer who performed with the students, embodied the problem. She’s a powerful soprano, to be sure, but Bernstein doesn’t call for powerful opera singing.It doesn’t fit to have an opera’s vibrato for the street-tough characters in Bernstein’s New York musicals. Heideman’s talents just weren’t the right ones (although to be fair she was not helped by a microphone that overloaded at the worst possible moments).Heideman and the opera students could have learned a lesson from Judy Kaye, a seasoned Broadway regular. Kaye, a Tony Award winner, struck the balance just right: one bar a soprano coloratura, the next an edgy, sharp New Yorker. It was like Carnegie Hall and Hell’s Kitchen in the same location.In Kaye’s lead, the evening turned into something truly special. Festival regulars, at first unsure how to respond, warmed quickly. Soon, feet were tapping; by the end of the final song, Zinman’s closing remarks were interrupted by spontaneous applause. With the sun well below the mountains, the tent glowed like an incandescent ball. Inside was a true celebration of all that’s wonderful about this town. The last song performed was from Bernstein’s “Candide,” his most consummate work. It was titled “Make your Garden Grow.” Strange. For in Aspen, you don’t need to. It’s already Eden.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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