That Bernstein feeling

SAN FRANCISCO -- On Nov. 14, 1943, 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein made his debut conducting the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. A last-minute substitute for Bruno Walter, he landed on the front page of the New York Times. The next year he composed his first musical, "On the Town," and wrote his first ballet, "Fancy Free," all of which made him the talk of the town.

Fourteen years after his Carnegie debut, Bernstein wrote "West Side Story" and was appointed the first American-born music director of the New York Philharmonic. That made him the talk of the nation and eventually the planet.

Bernstein, who died in 1990, would have turned 90 on Aug. 25. To celebrate, a three-month festival in New York, "Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds," will launch next week at Carnegie with a program of theater music featuring the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. PBS will broadcast the concert Oct. 29. The out-of-town tryout, so to speak, was Wednesday night here in Davies Symphony Hall.

To call this an out-of-town tryout is maybe a little unfair. The program, which will be repeated tonight, is part of the San Francisco Symphony's regular season, and, as it will in New York, it featured soprano Dawn Upshaw. But other big-name soloists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and baritone Thomas Hampson, are Carnegie exclusives. Their numbers Wednesday were taken by young unknowns. Still, with Tilson Thomas on the podium, this represented the most authentic Bernstein and the best possible Bernstein we have.

Tilson Thomas (or MTT in this town) is no longer called the next Bernstein. At 63, he's long been his own man and musician. But the parallels are nonetheless striking, beginning with the fact that Tilson Thomas got his first big break as a last-minute substitute conducting the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1969, shortly before turning 25. Bernstein was in the audience and had already taken the young man under his wing. An inspired educator, pianist, composer, conductor, writer and showman, Bernstein clearly recognized a kindred spirit and talent.

No concert -- indeed, no festival, considering how much the New York event leaves out -- can come close to encapsulating Bernstein, but Tilson Thomas covers a lot of territory. The program began with the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and brief excerpts from Bernstein's late opera, "A Quiet Place." After intermission, the pace quickened. Performers raced on and off stage, offering a variety of show tunes along with a couple of contrasting somber numbers.

Tilson Thomas treats Bernstein as a kind of American Mahler, as a composer whose music encompasses the world. Wednesday's performance of the "West Side Story" dances may have lacked the sheer radiance of the reading of this score by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl last year under Tilson Thomas, but revelatory details more than compensated. In the jazziest sections, where the conductor asked for near improvisatory freedom, the energy level rose precipitously high. "Somewhere" had an otherworldly beauty. But it was the passages that often go by unnoticed that took the breath away. A flute solo at the end of the "Rumble" had the quality of timeless, time-stopping ancient Japanese music. This is "West Side Story" ascending to higher and higher planes.

It's time someone starts making some noise about "A Quiet Place." The opera, which functioned as an existentially angst-ridden sequel to Bernstein's early, bouncy, Broadway-style opera, "Trouble in Tahiti," was a notable flop at its Houston Grand Opera premiere in 1983. Rewritten by the composer and librettist Stephen Wadsworth to incorporate "Trouble in Tahiti," "A Quiet Place" flopped slightly less at La Scala and Washington Opera the following year, but it has been little heard since. The CD set of the opera is one of the few Bernstein recordings out of print -- Amazon lists only one used copy at $133.

Tilson Thomas offered the instrumental Prologue and Postlude to Act 1 along with two arias from the act. The opera is a shattering portrait of a dysfunctional family. The dark and tortured instrumental pieces, as well as the aria "Morning, Good Morning" sung by Upshaw, felt like a nerve being opened, so raw was the intensity. However, Quinn Kelsey, a burly young Hawaiian baritone, failed to capture the fury of "You're Late," sung by the husband at the funeral of his wife.

The gala second half of Wednesday's concert was a mess, but an entertaining mess. Part of the problem was poor amplification, which added an unpleasant metallic flavor to voices while often making words unintelligible. Stephanie Harwood, a brash cabaret singer, took time off from "Beach Blanket Babylon" to punch out "I Can Cook, Too" from "On the Town." Peter Wyrick, a cellist in the orchestra, was the underpowered soloist in Meditation No. 1 from "Mass." Upshaw, though, spectacularly went to town with "What a Movie" from "Trouble in Tahiti." Kelsey and Wyrick were both more effective in "To What You Said . . . ," a beautiful and profound song with a troubling Whitman text. After excerpts from "Fancy Free" and "West Side Story," everyone went to town, including a singing Tilson Thomas, for "Ya Got Me" from "On the Town."

A little more star power, more rehearsal, classier amplification and printed texts will probably be needed at Carnegie next week for an opening-night crowd to crow, "Ya got me." I hope the orchestra gets all that, because this is a show with something to say.