Morgan James calls Leonard Bernstein the “quintessentially American” composer.
“He combines all of the genres and idioms that are unique to us and brings in other influences as well,” the soprano said. “We have very few things that are truly American – one is musical theater, one is jazz – and he brings those together in such an elegant way. It’s incredibly sophisticated music, but it’s also very accessible.”
Bernstein, known by some as the composer of musicals “West Side Story,” “On the Town” and “Candide,” and by others for his prodigious classical work, is being especially celebrated this year, the centennial of his birth, 100 years ago in August.
The Wichita Symphony Orchestra is doing its part by hosting James – whose Broadway credits include “The Addams Family” and “Godspell,” as well as being a YouTube sensation with the retro band Postmodern Jukebox – and guest conductor Teddy Abrams in a pops concert next weekend at Century II.
The program includes a selection of songs from Bernstein’s well-known musicals, as well as some material known only to rabid fans of the composer, such as “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass, as well as “Ain’t Got No Tears Left,” which was cut from “On the Town” and the song “Dream With Me,” from his version of “Peter Pan.”
“Teddy and I both really wanted to include some of the lesser-known pieces so that people would be hearing some hidden gems,” James said in a joint phone interview with Abrams from a tour stop in Salt Lake City.
“I think people do get a taste of some familiar, comforting, classic melodies, but they also hear things that may become their favorites,” she added.
Abrams said Bernstein’s career can be broken down into three categories: musicals, jazz and avant-garde classical.
“People don’t realize how far he landed in terms of quite advanced harmonic language,” said Abrams, a composer himself as well as music director of Kentucky’s Louisville Orchestra. “He was working with liturgical texts and all kinds of elements that people forget that a major part of his life was deeply spiritual.”
That is reflected in Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, as well as his Mass, in which James toured the country as a soloist.
Abrams calls Bernstein his “grand-teacher,” studying under the composer’s protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas. Thomas inherited Bernstein’s spot at the podium as host of the “Young People’s Concerts,” an explanatory series about symphonic music.
“He was such an over-the-top personality that you couldn’t help but go away with respect for him,” said Abrams, who has heard a bevy of anecdotes about Bernstein. “Some of them were very, very funny stories.”
Abrams said Bernstein might not have been appreciated in his time for his versatility and virtuosity.
“The music is kind of eternal, which I remind the audiences is what Bernstein always wanted. He wasn’t always taken as seriously as a composer,” Abrams said.
“Nothing could make him happier than to see his music so widespread,” he added of Bernstein, who died in 1990. “Now they truly love the music he left us.”
WICHITA SYMPHONY POPS CONCERT: BERNSTEIN ON BROADWAY
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 6
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $35-$80, from wichitasymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office