The Bernstein centenary has been lavishly celebrated in this year’s BBC Proms, with performances of his musicals, symphonies and concertos. Beyond his symphonic work, however, lies a large body of smaller-scale chamber works, which often show the composer in more daring form. Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and American pianist Michael Sikich performed a delightful selection of these songs, integrating works by Bernstein’s friends and contemporaries.

Wallis Giunta © Dario Acosta
Wallis Giunta
© Dario Acosta

The culinary theme of the concert centred around Bernstein’s La bonne cuisine, a miniature song cycle setting the texts of four cookbook recipes. The cycle displays Bernstein in Satie-influenced surreal form, culminating with a movement perpétuel on how to make a rabbit stew in 15 minutes. Giunta and Sikich were in particularly fine form for this work, with crystal-clear articulation and nicely contrasted musical styles between the songs. This song cycle formed the inspiration for Bushra El-Turk’s Crème Brûlée on a Tree, commissioned by the BBC and receiving its world première today. Taking as its text a recipe for durian custard, the composition seems a visceral reaction to the infamous odour of the fruit. Full of extended vocal technique, this virtuosic composition demands the performer sniff, snap, hold one’s nose, and even slap oneself as a sort of body percussion accompaniment. Performed with wit and physicality by Giunta and Sikich, the piece was perfectly balanced between challenging and entertaining its audience, and based on the raucous laughter and applause seems destined to become a hit. 

The concert also featured the UK première of Bernstein’s Conch Town, a ballet composed when Bernstein was only 23 but never completed. Written during a stay in Key West, Florida, the music, scored for two pianists and two percussionists, is heavily influenced by Cuban rhythms. Though the score is itself somewhat scattered (whether this is due to Bernstein’s youth or the reconstruction of the complete score is unclear), it contains all the elements we have come to associate with Bernstein’s later work, including its jazzy rhythms and skilled use of timbre even with such limited instrumentation. Most notably, the score contains much of the material that was to become West Side Story’s “America”. For this, Sikich was joined by pianist Iain Farrington and percussionists Toby Kearney and Owen Gunnell, all of whom proved to be as at home in the jazz idiom as in classical.

The remainder of the programme comprised songs by Bernstein and his contemporaries, perhaps highlighting the extent to which Bernstein’s music was eclectic for its time. From the improvisatory jazz style of Big Stuff to the ironic Hollywood scoring of Dinah’s “What a movie!” from Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein was writing for every possible voice type, classical or not; Giunta’s bright, feisty mezzo was an ideal fit for the spitfire Dinah but sat slightly too high for the Billie Holiday-esque Big Stuff.

The Copland and Barber pieces were nicely sung if a touch anonymous, but it was the Blitzstein songs that really shone: the tender Stay in my arms was sung with an opulent tone that suggested that Giunta is destined for bigger romantic operatic roles, and the utterly hilarious Modest Maid, about a Victorian maid with an oversized sex drive. Best of all, however, were excerpts from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music – “Send in the clowns”, sung as an encore, was given an emotionally charged performance that beautifully captured the bitterness and regret of the piece and confirmed Giunta as a top tier actor as well as singer.

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