ECSO teams up with Yale Opera to present Bernstein's "Candide"
2018 will be a year remembered for many things. But in the world of music, 2018 has been the year of Leonard Bernstein. In celebration of the great composer/conductor’s centennial birthday, orchestras and operas nationwide have been slating Bernstein pieces into seasonal programs. As such, the same will be true for New London’s Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, which will be closing its 2017-2018 season Saturday with a finale performance of “Candide” — the Bernstein Broadway operetta based on Voltaire’s 1795 novella of the same name.
ECSO’s rendition will take on perhaps a more nuanced flair under the direction of ECSO director and conductor Toshiyuki Shimada who, in the beginning of his conducting career, was mentored by the great Bernstein himself. The relationship the two forged and Bernstein’s subsequent teachings have, in the decades since, shaped Shimada’s conducting style and passion towards music and, in this case, his approach to “Candide.”
“‘Candide’ was special to Bernstein,” Shimada says, while explaining why he selected this Bernstein opera piece over, say, Bernstein’s popular “Trouble in Tahiti.” “‘Candide’ is fun. Really, it’s like opera, but it’s a cross between Broadway musical, Viennese operetta, and, of course, regular opera. … And Voltaire’s storylines themselves are unique in a way, too. Even though it’s many years later, things are not too different than from what we experience now.”
Coordinating such a show, which hinges on an orchestra and operatic voices, has required Shimada to combine three ensembles — the ECSO, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus and the Yale Opera, for which he also directs — a first in ECSO history. The three ensembles have been practicing on their own over the last few weeks, Shimada says, and today will be the first full group rehearsal. Three more rehearsals are scheduled to follow in the time leading up to Saturday’s finale show.
“That is enough for us,” he says. “We are professionals.”
“Candide” tells the satirical story of a character named Candide, who travels from continent to continent in search for his true love, Cunegonde. On his journey into the New World, Candide encounters menacing armies and pirates, along with a host of other threats, while Cunegonde, too, must grapple with her own darker issues. In its original version, “Candide” functioned as a satirical attack on the optimist worldviews of German philosopher Leibniz — views that Voltaire felt trivialized human suffering. Inspired by such sharp commentary, Bernstein, too, decided to create his own score to that novella, premiering his first iteration of that show on Broadway in 1956. In the following three decades leading up to his death, Bernstein constantly returned to the piece, revising and reviving, and working with renowned lyricists and composers, such as Stephen Sondheim, along the way.
“He wrote it as a political comment against the then Eisenhower administration,” Shimada says. “He always said to me that ‘Candide’ could relate to anybody, anytime.” In the context of today, then, Shimada will be tying in Bernstein’s vision and interpretations of the work along with his own understanding of the world at large today.
“‘Candide’ still relates to today, very much so. It’s about human nature, how people are hurting themselves, how natural disasters happen, and trying to understand why this is all happening,” Shimada says. “That’s the theme running through the story. Trying to escape from a disaster and understanding the answer. This work, it really makes you think.”
Though “Candide” has evolved theatrically and musically since Bernstein’s first rendition of the piece in 1956, its final score, which was conducted by Bernstein with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1989, a year before his death, has stood the test of time. On Saturday, that same score will be performed, without a theatrical staging. There will still be, however, some “quasi acting,” Shimada says, with scene-opening narrations.
When reminiscing about his time with Bernstein, Shimada says, "when Bernstein did anything, he did it with full force, 100 percent. There was nothing less than 100 percent. Whatever he did — his lecture series, composing, conducting or being at a party — he was really a person of life. When he walked in the room, everyone kind of stopped talking. He was a very strong, charismatic person. He was a renaissance man."
"(Bernstein's) influence is really immense," Shimada continues. "Sometimes I'm conducting and not really thinking about Lenny. But then, all of a sudden, I realize that Lenny used to do something I happen to be doing. And I will chuckle, and I will say thank you, Lenny. He was very much a great teacher."
Shimada also remembers Bernstein recounting a near-death experience he had one night while having a post-dinner discussion with colleagues in a Los Angeles hotel. A man came into the room to rob them at gunpoint, Shimada says, and Bernstein, thinking his life was over, flashed to images of him meeting all the musical greats — Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms — in the afterlife. “When he thought of Mahler, the gunman disappeared,” Shimada says. “Bernstein always joked afterwards that Mahler had the power to get rid of the criminal.”
That story, Shimada says, is a crucial reminder of music’s enduring power — its ability to transcend life itself.
“Even when he thought he was at the end of his life, music still did that for him …That’s the great thing about classical music. It can evoke how Beethoven was feeling 200 years ago, and we can still feel what he was feeling then, through his music.”
Saturday’s performance, then, will act as a vessel to revive the great work of the late Bernstein — a fitting way to tie out the season finale.
“The type of music we make is a really great vehicle for bringing back the composer’s intention. Once we start performing and producing the sound, that feeling comes alive. It’s like resurrecting those intentions on stage.”
"Candide," 8 p.m. Saturday, pre-concert chat 7 p.m., Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; presented by the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, ECS Chorus and Yale Opera; $12-$62; (860) 443-2876, ectsymphony.com.