One of four orchestras appearing at Bravo! Vail this summer, the New York Philharmonic brought along six different programmes, the first four of which were led by music director Jaap van Zweden – including a cathartic Mahler Sixth. Leonard Slatkin took over the reins for the remaining two programmes in the open-air main venue: an all-Tchaikovsky evening and this concluding concert, “A Sondheim Celebration”. Originally, these last two concerts were to have been conducted by Bramwell Tovey, a much-loved regular at Bravo! Vail who died on 12th July, only 69 years old. Slatkin dedicated the performances to his memory. 

Isabel Leonard and Emmett O’Hanlon
© Carly Finke

The NY Phil has made several deep dives into the work of the Broadway trailblazer, who died at the age of 91 last November. Along with orchestral arrangements of suites from several of his musicals and a film score, they’ve given semi-staged concert presentations of Company and Sweeney Todd over the years. But the guiding idea of this programme was simply to sample and savour the astonishing variety of worlds that Stephen Sondheim conjured with his innovative – indeed, paradigm-shifting – contributions to music theatre. 

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and baritone Emmett O’Hanlon joined the orchestra to survey Sondheim’s legacy from his early years up to his Tony Award-winning Into the Woods from 1987. But attempting an overview of Sondheim is no straightforward task, since a signature of his style is an aversion to readily isolated hit numbers that can be painlessly ripped out of context. One obvious exception is “Send in the Clowns” from 1973’s Ingmar Bergman-inspired A Little Night Music, which Leonard sang with poignant intensity near the end of the concert, her plummy lower range illuminated by exquisitely tender solos from the NY Phil winds.

Bravo, Vail!
© Carly Finke

Slatkin circumvented this dilemma by clarifying the context in his eloquent introductory commentary for each set. Already in their perky account of the opening number, the overture to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), the musicians showed their evident enjoyment with Sondheim’s musical language. In his remarks, meanwhile, Slatkin emphasised the game-changing sophistication and brilliance of Sondheim the lyricist and his unique combinations of words and music. 

Emmett O'Hanlon, Isabel Leonard, Leonard Slatkin and the New York Philharmonic
© Carly Finke

Leonard homed in on the wistful charm of the title song from the early flop Anyone Can Whistle (1964). O’Hanlon then joined her in the epiphanic duet “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George (1984). Following his robustly sung “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd (1979), O’Hanlon reveled with Leonard in the twisted word play of “A Little Priest” from the same musical. Considerable attention was given to Sondheim’s subversive take on fairy-tales, Into the Woods, represented by a solo each for Leonard and O’Hanlon and two duets. 

Since this was the New York Philharmonic, it was perhaps inevitable that Leonard Bernstein would make an appearance. The odd “Mr and Mrs Webb Say Goodnight” from Bernstein’s late song cycle Arias and Barcarolles (1988) – by turns mercurial and elegiac – was presumably chosen because he, too, combined the functions of lyricist and composer here. As Slatkin pointed out, Sondheim struggled to rebrand himself after winning such phenomenal early success as the lyricist for West Side Story (1957), which, as it happened, was given the last say in the evening’s three encores.