They might have felt like something more light-footed. Only a couple of days after they ended a series of performances of Salome at the Dutch National Opera, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, back in their own house, swung on to the music of Leonard Bernstein, treating the audience to a highly enjoyable summer night.

John Wilson © Sim Canetty-Clarke
John Wilson
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The guest conductor for the night was John Wilson, a specialist of this repertoire. For his first ever collaboration with the Amsterdam-based orchestra, his lead appeared very relaxed, with split-second precision. The musicians, seated in an unusual “big band” formation, with the brass section placed prominently and with no less than 5 percussionists, responded to it with plenty of jazzy verve. Judging from some foot-tapping on the podium, they were having as much fun as the audience. The sound they produced was exuberant and lush, yet always precisely chiselled.

The program, entitled “The Best of Bernstein”, explored the composer’s multifaceted creative output through a varied selection of excerpts from his musicals (On the Town, Wonderful Town), operettas (Candide, Trouble in Tahiti) and film music (On the Waterfront), mixing familiar repertoire (West Side Story) and rarities (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). A team of four versatile soloists sang the parts.

Tenor Julian Ovenden and baritone Nadim Naaman set the mood of the evening, transporting the audience to Broadway with their “New York, New York” from On The Town (not to be confused with the Frank Sinatra hit). Ovenden would later in the evening give a fine rendition of the well-known “Maria” from West Side Story, in which Tony amorously sings his fascination with the name of the girl he has just met. Soprano Scarlett Strallen impressed with her coloratura and plenty of attitude in Cunégonde’s aria “Glitter and Be Gay” from the Voltaire-based operetta Candide.

However, the stand-out performance from the vocal soloists that night came from Kim Criswell. Performing show tunes out of their context can be a perilous exercise. Clearly not to Criswell, though, who allies to her riveting stage presence a perplexing ability to set the scene and recreate a character in the space of the few minutes that a song lasts. Thanks to her rich tone, impeccable diction and superb acting, her portrayals of the self-confident taxi driver Hildy from On The Town and of the fantasizing housewife Dinah from Trouble in Tahiti were irresistibly vivid. With “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” from Wonderful Town, she sent the audience roaring with laughter.

The programme wasn’t all jolly numbers though, and at the end of the first part of the concert the contrasting dark mood of the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront (1955) had me sitting at the edge of my seat. The suite is a rearrangement of the score Bernstein originally composed for Elia Kazan’s 1954 masterpiece, starring Marlon Brando, about a dockworker colliding with the corruption and violence of a mob-infiltrated union on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey. Starting with a stark French horn solo, the piece moves to rumbling percussion and outbursts of brass, throbbing with the sense of violence and danger. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s performance of this dramatically expressive music was just gripping.

It was a sterling performance, and one year before the centennial of his birth, it already felt like a beautiful homage from the musicians to Leonard Bernstein the conductor, with whom the orchestra had such a fruitful collaboration from the first time he conducted them in 1950 until the late 1980’s.