- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

Young singers of the Wolf Trap Opera company kicked off their summer music season Saturday with “Happy Birthday to Two,” a recital highlighting the wide-ranging American art songs of Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom.

The vocalists were accompanied by New York Festival of Song co-founder and pianist Steven Blier. A friend of both composers, Mr. Blier punctuated the program with background and witty asides that provided a context for each number.

The selections were a showcase for the featured composers, who share zero-year birthdays in 2008. The late Leonard Bernstein was born in 1918, and Mr. Bolcom was born May 26, 1938.

Mr. Bernstein was a whirling dervish of contradictions. The longtime conductor of the New York Philharmonic popularized symphonic music even as the genre seemed in decline. With his televised Young People’s Concerts, he single-handedly created a new audience of baby-boomer concertgoers (including this critic) and inspired a new generation of conductors, including the Baltimore Symphony’s Marin Alsop.

Yet, in many ways, he regarded himself as first and foremost a composer. With one foot on Broadway and another in the concert hall, Mr. Bernstein composed musical works of enduring worth, including the shows “On the Town” and “West Side Story.” Often brassy and pugnacious in the musical sense, Mr. Bernstein could create surprisingly moving ballad- or hymnlike songs, such as “My House” (from his “Peter Pan”), beautifully sung by soprano Rebekah Camm; and “Spring Will Come Again” (from the failed “Skin of Our Teeth”), touchingly articulated by Miss Camm and tenor Rodell Rosel. The song was later retooled as the second of the composer’s “Chichester Psalms.”

If anything, Mr. Bolcom, still going strong at 70, is even harder to categorize than Mr. Bernstein. One writer pegged him as an “unrepentant eclectic” and a “genre-hopper,” and that’s true. Mr. Bolcom is just as happy with a jumble of tone clusters as he is with ragtime.

Mr. Blier led off the program’s second half with Mr. Bolcom’s marvelously rich “Graceful Ghost” piano rag, which seizes the heritage of something like Scott Joplin’s “Gladiolus Rag” and takes it into the 21st century.

Vocal selections included “If It’s Gold You Got” from Mr. Bolcom’s spiky opera “McTeague,” featuring soprano Leena Chopra, mezzo Jamie Van Eyck, Mr. Rosel, and baritone James J. Kee; and the bizarre “Golden Babies” from the same work, realistically interpreted by Miss Camm.

Other highlights were the “Song of Black Max,” a dark art song with a hat tip to Kurt Weill, crisply delivered by Mr. Kee; and Mr. Rosel’s deliciously over-the-top interpretation of “Bruce,” perhaps the funniest art song ever to show up at a classical recital.

The recital ended with a rousing chorus of Mr. Bolcom’s “Yip-I-Addy-I-Ay!” by the ensemble and a moving encore of Mr. Bernstein’s “Nachtspiel,” a farewell song for piano and wordless small chorus.

A hat tip to all. Attractive, lively contemporary programs like this will appeal to all age groups and audiences, going a long way toward proving that classical music is alive and evolving and doesn’t just belong in a dusty museum.

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