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'Candide' on the coast, Part 1: San Francisco finds a spiritual glow in Bernstein's music

'Candide' on the coast, Part 1: San Francisco finds a spiritual glow in Bernstein's music
Meghan Picerno as Cunegonde and Andrew Stenson as Candide in the San Francisco Symphony performance of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. (Kristen Loken / San Francisco Symphony)

In the annals of Leonard Bernstein, it is common to dismiss the West Coast. The composer was a native Bostonian and a New York icon who didn't have all that much to do with us.

Though a media maven, Bernstein showed little love for Hollywood, scoring only a single film, "On the Waterfront," compelling though that soundtrack is. He seldom conducted the San Francisco Symphony, and his handful of notable Los Angeles Philharmonic performances were confined to the Hollywood Bowl. He came out west every so often with the New York Philharmonic, the Israel Symphony or the Vienna Philharmonic. His attempt to create a teaching institute at UCLA, a sort of Tanglewood West, in the 1980s proved short-lived.

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Not so fast, though. At the moment, California is no Bernstein quiet place. Playing our part in Bernstein's 100th birthday celebrations this year, the San Francisco Symphony just presented four concert performances of Bernstein's operetta, "Candide," the last on Sunday afternoon with Michael Tilson Thomas as the radiant conductor.

This week, Bernstein moves to the Music Center. Los Angeles Opera's new production of "Candide" opens Saturday night; the Los Angeles Philharmonic mounts a production of Bernstein's "Mass" the following week.

As for San Francisco, a small exhibit in Davies Symphony Hall revealed something seldom noticed. Bernstein may have shaped the New York Philharmonic while music director from 1958 to 1969, but since then, the San Francisco Symphony is the orchestra with the most extensive ongoing Bernstein influence. He was a mentor to all its music directors from 1970 to the present: Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt and Tilson Thomas

For Tilson Thomas, who has had the most to do with creating the modern San Francisco Symphony, Bernstein was practically a second father. Now 73, a year older than Bernstein was when he died, Tilson Thomas brings a unique and increasingly reflective perspective on Bernstein that no other musician can match.

When it comes to "Candide," there is a lot to reflect upon. Based on Voltaire's novel parodying the 18th century notion of optimism in God's benevolence, it began as an operetta for Broadway written in collaboration with playwright Lillian Hellman. But despite some wonderful songs and the best overture for a Broadway show ever, "Candide" flopped when it opened in 1956.

Bernstein, though, continued to work on it for the rest of his life. There was rewrite after rewrite. New songs. New lyrics. New books. New collaborators, including Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim, in various revivals for the musical stage and opera house.

The final version was for a concert performance Bernstein conducted in 1989, a year before he died, with the London Symphony Orchestra, of which Tilson Thomas was then music director. Bernstein revised orchestrations originally by Hershy Kay and later with additions by John Mauceri and made many adjustments in the score, changing harmonies, changing endings of the songs and bringing everything more convincingly together (although having room for not even half of all the music he had written for the show over the years).

"Candide" went from what Tilson Thomas calls in the program book a "delicious romp" to something considerably grander, while retaining its delight in a mishmash of stylistic mimicry, the Jewish tango and all the rest as the naïve Candide travels from country to country and continent to continent in search for his love, Cunegonde.

The hapless protagonist survives the Bulgarian army, the Spanish Inquisition, pirates at sea, a crazy journey to the New World that includes a spell in the magical land of El Dorado. Cunegonde has her own horrors to contend with — prostitution, rape, boredom. Meanwhile, Candide strives to live by his teacher Dr. Pangloss' maxim, that no matter what, this is the best of all possible worlds.

There are many ways to handle this theatrically and musically. Tilson Thomas has the wit and musical versatility — to say nothing of being an inspired mimic — to match Bernstein in conducting "Candide." On Sunday afternoon, he savored orchestral deliciousness to a degree that exceeds even Bernstein's LSO recording.

But the overall feeling became something grander, even a little wistful. A cast of young singers with opera credentials, along with one beloved San Francisco opera veteran, stood on a platform behind the orchestra. Meghan Picerno, as Cunegonde, added gymnastics along with vocal acrobatics that made "Glitter and Be Gay" even more of a showstopper than usual.

Otherwise, Andrew Stenson (Candide), Michael Todd Simpson (the narrator and Dr. Pangloss), Hadleigh Adams (Cunegonde's pompous brother), Vanessa Becerra (the maid, Paquette) and Sheri Greenawald (the Old Lady with one buttock) romped inoffensively and sang deliciously. (No director was credited.) Singing took precedence over song. Too few words were intelligible. There were no supertitles.

Music, in nearly all other instances, prevailed over theater. Tilson Thomas kindled a magical glow from the orchestra. The large San Francisco Symphony Chorus was glorious.

In the second act, the operetta starts to lose its buoyancy. The tendency by most conductors is to turn up the heat. Tilson Thomas, who shares with Bernstein an overwhelming mastery of Mahler's symphonies, turned up the angst. It was around this point that I began to notice that all along, Tilson Thomas had been treating "Candide" as its own kind of Mahlerian extravaganza, a world of ever-changing interplay between despair and zeal.

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By the end, world-weariness reduces Candide and Cunegonde to near zombies until Candide finds his Zen moment. We are what we are, who we are, and we need each other as Bernstein ends "Candide" with one of his most moving songs, "Make My Garden Grow." Here Tilson Thomas brought the large chorus and his excellent cast to a place of sheer Mahlerian rapture.

Say what you will about the West Coast and our cultivation of feel-good cults. In rejecting the realm of cynical operetta, Tilson Thomas' "Candide" became something, to my knowledge, it had never been before: an authentic spiritual journey.

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