In a year jammed with centenary tributes to American conductor, pianist and composer Leonard Bernstein, Prague Spring has legitimate claim to a small but significant part of his legacy. Bernstein made his European debut at the very first Prague Spring festival in 1946, when he was barely known outside the US. The Iron Curtain descended two years later, so it was 1990 before Bernstein returned to the festival, leading two performances of Beethovenʼs Ninth Symphony. By then he was a megastar; a broadcast of him conducting the Ninth in Berlin the previous December to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall was watched by an estimated 100 million viewers in 20 countries.

Keith Lockhart conducts the Czech Philharmonic © Prague Spring | Petra Hajská
Keith Lockhart conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Prague Spring | Petra Hajská

The orchestra for the commemorative concert was the same one that Bernstein conducted in 1946, the Czech Philharmonic, this time with Boston Pops Music Director Keith Lockhart on the podium. The program included two of the original pieces that Bernstein brought with him – Aaron Coplandʼs El Salón México and Samuel Barberʼs Second Essay. The remainder of the evening was devoted to Bernsteinʼs work in movies and Broadway musicals, starting with the 1954 film On the Waterfront and concluding with West Side Story

The Czech Philharmonic is unsurpassed in its homeland repertoire, and a solid all-around orchestra, but will never be mistaken for a pops ensemble. So Lockhart did impressive work lightening the sound, heightening the melodies and keeping the tempo brisk. Still, El Salón México, a favorite of Bernsteinʼs, did not feel like an entirely comfortable fit. The dance hall percussion was sharp and the playing animated, but the sense of a Central European orchestra not quite nailing Latin rhythms was inescapable, even with the nimble turns of phrase that Lockhart conjured.

Bernstein was also an admirer of Barber, and following the light-hearted Salón, his somber Essay seemed to carry a message: Americans are capable of serious music, too. Lockhart started modestly and gradually expanded the sound and scope, ending with a monumental finish. If not quite entirely convincing it was powerful and dramatic, a New World import with impact.

Lockhartʼs treatment of the On the Waterfront suite brought to mind an axiom: If you start loud, youʼve got nowhere to go. Except, in this case, much louder. The percussion began like rifle shots and by the end sounded like the entire section was banging on a very large sheet of tin. It seemed overbearing in a piece that already has great seriousness of purpose, which Lockhart evoked expertly. His reading was deep, and dazzling in details like the early jazz inflections. But the volume grew to such outsized proportions that it ultimately bordered on bombastic. 

Vojtěch Dyk and singers © Prague Spring | Petra Hajská
Vojtěch Dyk and singers
© Prague Spring | Petra Hajská

For a second half devoted entirely to “Bernstein on Broadway,” five singers joined the orchestra, led by Czech actor and pop star Vojtěch Dyk. For much of the past year Dyk has starred in a touring Czech production of Bernsteinʼs Mass, making him a logical local choice to lead a highlights tour through Candide, On the Town, Wonderful Town and West Side Story, with a brief solo detour into Massʼs “Simple Song.” The other singers – British, Dutch and Australian – all have backgrounds in musical theatre, but were introduced by Dyk as “my new students”. Which is a good description of what they sounded like. The voices were strong (with the help of microphones) and the range impressive, but the technical problems were acute. And on occasion the singing was just flat-out sour. 

Lockhartʼs accompaniment was brilliant, and sadly reflected in the song title “What a Waste” from Wonderful Town. Lively, expressive, brimming with colorful accents and flourishes, the music was everything the singing was not – and too often drowned out by the miked voices. One also had to wonder about using a top-of-the-line symphony orchestra for light pops. Thatʼs part of almost every orchestraʼs summer schedule, but in this case it seemed top-heavy, an overly serious vehicle to carry lightweight fare.

Judging from the audience response, I was the only person in the hall not thrilled by the Broadway program, which drew extended and enthusiastic applause. If it lacked aesthetic ambition, there was no denying its very successful commercial appeal. And in a celebration of one of the great musical minds of the 20th century, whoʼs to argue with the closing sentiment “What was just a world is a star tonight”?