Have we had our fill of Bernstein yet? Not quite.
Singer Isabel Leonard and pianist Ted Sperling came to the Perelman Theater on Sunday afternoon with another tip of the hat to the composer, whose centenary celebration was launched last season. In song and commentary, the duo in this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital landed mostly on the familiar, with tunes from West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide.
And yet, as is often the case with Bernstein, the artist emerged from Sunday’s portrait-sitting with the details more finely contoured than we might have expected.
Broadway-worthy, yes. Accessible, always. But partly through the crystalline sound of this singer’s voice and the pianist’s subtle coaxing of certain harmonies and textures, Bernstein appeared as one of the great synthesizers of American culture.
He’s always been known as a polymath, but the scope of Sunday’s material was so varied it seemed as though he was listening in on the entire 20th century, becoming the spokesman for an American aesthetic often upbeat, a little bit wise-guy, and a good deal wise.
And witty. Among the surprises was a birthday song he wrote for Irving Berlin’s 100th. My Twelve Tone Melody is anything but a mere ditty. Its virtues pile up, starting with not trying to sound anything like Irving Berlin. Rather, its slippery harmonic progress moves — slithers, really — in unexpected ways, managing to be both sincere and funny.
It also showed Bernstein’s great sensitivity to the marriage of text and music, with a quick chromatic run of four notes on irv-ing-ber-lin so convincing you’ll not encounter the name ever again without hearing that tune in your head.
More opaque, though no less striking in a different way, was Bernstein’s handling of Walt Whitman. “To What You Said” from Bernstein’s Songfest is as tender, pained, and lovingly ambiguous as the poem itself. It is Mahler with a slight hue of blues.
Isabel Leonard is exactly the kind of singer you’d expect to hear at a PCMS concert, which is to say, rather operatic and not exactly American-songbook- or Broadway-sounding. But Bernstein’s repertoire is a big tent, and she was so superb in so many ways that her legit sound simply served to make you hear some of this music in a different way.
The seven-note scale at the end of “Peter, Peter” from Peter Pan on the words “and I love you very much” sailed off into the atmosphere with ease. The octave dive on the words “oh, well” in “Some Other Time” from On the Town was probably never rendered with as much smooth, no-nonsense precision as it was here. Leonard has a fine set of rich low notes, as well.