Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Birthday party for Leonard Bernstein


American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. Photo: Courtesy SF Performances
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American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard is a big hit in Northern California. Her memorable appearances with the San Francisco Symphony and well-received San Francisco Opera debut as Rosina in "The Barber of Seville," alongside numerous gigs with San Francisco Performances, have earned the lovely New Yorker a solid local fan-base. Her fall season has been especially active, thanks to ongoing birth centennial tributes to Leonard Bernstein and La Leonard's enthusiastic involvement. Her recent recital at Herbst Theatre, which started San Francisco Performances' 2017-18 season, was part concert, part cabaret, and all-Bernstein, too.

The easy-going affair showed Leonard has the richly beautiful tone and instinctive mixture of innocence and wit to believably inhabit almost any Bernstein song. She also has exceptionally attractive stage presence that suits everything from Wendy's sweet expression of her crush on Peter Pan ("Peter, Peter") to Walt Whitman's moving words in "To What You Said" from "Songfest." Her fresh good looks added a delightful sense of self-awareness to a vivacious "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story."

Some of the concert felt a little like a work-in-progress, but with sturdy and perceptive support from piano accompanist John Arida, the evening flew by with great charm. There were more than a few moments of startling emotion as well. The audience certainly had a good time from start to finish, showing satisfaction with hearty and repeated applause.

Leonard performed Bernstein's "Arias and Barcarolles" as recently as September, with bass-baritone Ryan McKinny and Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. There wasn't a dry eye in the house when she sang the brief but perfect little gem, "Greeting." To hear it again, so soon thereafter, in the more intimate Herbst, with only a piano to back her, the composer's simple "Greeting" to the birth of a child was even more touching.

By contrast, the group sing-along of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story" was bloated and way too sentimental. Still, the audience joined with gusto, and no one could ever say Lenny wasn't occasionally willing to wear his heart on his sleeve. It's still a wonderful song, and judging from the response, Ms. Leonard may count more than a few trained singers amidst her following.

The program was divided into thematic sections: "Lenny on Love," "Bernstein for Kids," "Bernstein in My Mind," and finally, "Lenny & Leonard Say Goodbye." Each part contained serious pieces (opera and art songs) and some of the more instantly accessible show tunes.

Bernstein's mastery of genres was apparent throughout. Even when writing serial music, his voice was irrepressibly (and amusingly) recognizable. "My Twelve Tone Melody" (written for Irving Berlin's 100th birthday) proved Isabel Leonard can match Lenny for versatility with styles.

The recital's minor weaknesses were compensated for by an air of breezy enjoyment. I thought pianist Arida deserved at least one solo, but his obvious rapport with Leonard underlined the pair's contagiously friendly mood. They excelled in cheery and wistful songs from "On the Town" and "Wonderful Town," and he added strong support in more somber material. If the evening proved a little less than the sum of its parts, it was still a good party, a fitting addition to Bernstein's ongoing birthday do, and a good opening of the San Francisco Performances season.

Late-breaking news: Isabel Leonard will be back in San Francisco Nov. 24-26. She is replacing Susanna Phillips in San Francisco Symphony performances of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, conducted by MTT at Davies Symphony Hall. More info:


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