Leonard Bernstein, born 100 years ago this August, is impossible to pigeon-hole. From the early 1940s until his death at age 72 in 1990, the American composer/conductor/pianist/author/lecturer occupied a larger-than-life place on the world’s music scene.

Was he a musical theater legend? He certainly filled that bill, the composer of several notable musicals, among them the landmark 1957 Broadway show, “West Side Story.” He adapted the play’s score for the 1961 film version and also wrote the score for Elia Kazan’s dark1954 film, “On the Waterfront” starring Marlon Brando.

‘100 Years of Bernstein’
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
Tickets/info: Lyricopera.org

Or was he a classical musician? His operetta, “Candide,” has been performed by opera companies around the world, and its dazzling aria, “Glitter and Be Gay,” definitely requires a soprano with virtuoso chops. He wrote three symphonies, several large choral works and chamber music. As a conductor, Bernstein was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and over his long career conducted the world’s leading orchestras.

Lyric Opera of Chicago has decided to have it both way for its 100 Years of Bernstein concert Saturday at the Lyric Opera House.

The evening opens with “Trouble in Tahiti,” a rarely performed but powerful one-act opera composed in 1952 about a marriage slowly dissolving in suburban America. Lyric favorites mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and baritone Nathan Gunn will star in a semi-staged version of the work. After intermission Broadway star Kate Baldwin, currently playing the shopkeeper, Mrs. Molloy, in “Hello Dolly” on Broadway, will join Graham and Gunn. Along with singers from Lyric’s Ryan Center, they will perform selections from Bernstein’s vast repertoire of songs. David Chase, a Broadway conductor and arranger who was in the pit for Lyric’s productions of “My Fair Lady” and “The King and I” (starring Baldwin), will conduct Lyric’s orchestra.

“Bernstein is one of the supreme masters of American music,” said Lyric’s general director, president and CEO Anthony Freud, “and we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to commemorate his centenary.” (Lyric presented “Candide” in 1994 and “West Side Story” will be its annual musical in spring 2019.) “He wrote a lot of vocal music, and [this concert] seemed to be appropriate for us and something our audiences will have a great time at. And it seemed that ‘Trouble in Tahiti’ was a comparatively little-performed and comparatively unknown piece that would give the program a kind of foundation.”

Leonard Bernstein | COURTESY CBS

“Trouble in Tahiti” is new territory for both Graham and Gunn.

Graham, one of opera’s leading mezzo-sopranos, most recently giving a deeply moving performance at Lyric as the betrayed queen, Dido, in Hector Berlioz’s sprawling “Les Troyens.” French repertoire is a specialty of hers, but “like everybody else in America,” said Graham, “I had grown up with Bernstein’s music. I love his songs. His music has something that speaks to our DNA, as a country, and certainly to our generation that grew up with ‘West Side Story’ in the background.”

Bernstein wrote “Trouble in Tahiti” as an indictment of the loneliness and emotional isolation he perceived in the supposedly perfect world of American suburbia in what would become the Mad Men era. Newly married himself after a turbulent courtship and struggling with his then-hidden homosexuality, he wrote both the words and music for the tale of Sam and Dinah, a married couple unable to communicate. The music ranges from haunting lyricism to jazz to up-tempo jingles for a scat-singing trio that functions as a kind of Greek chorus.

“David Chase,” said Graham, “suggested that Bernstein wrote this from the viewpoint of the [couple’s] little boy who wants his parents to be okay. It’s got some really dark moments. There’s a lot in it.”

The mood will be somewhat lighter in the second half’s lineup of Bernstein songs. An Evanston native who grew up in the Milwaukee area and studied at Northwestern University, Baldwin brought a clear, expressive voice and dramatic depth to her performances as Anna in Lyric’s “The King and I” in spring 2016. She’s a regular on Broadway and early in her career joined the cast of a Broadway revival of Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town” that opened in 2003.

“I’ll be doing a song from ‘Wonderful Town’ on the concert,” said Baldwin. “To me, Bernstein combines the best romantic and dramatic musical vocabulary with an adventurous spirit. The things he did in ‘West Side Story’ with Latin beats and sweeping melodies were incredibly exciting at the time and remain so.”

“I’ve spent the last 25 years conducting and arranging Broadway shows,” said Chase, “and I was always attracted to the muscularity of Bernstein’s sound. It shares with Gershwin, it shares with [Aaron] Copland, both of whom are also quintessentially American. But it has its own edge. That comes from a knowledge of everything from boogie-woogie to a lot of jazz to an incredible understanding of the entire classical repertoire. You hear a Bernstein piece and you know immediately that it’s Bernstein.”

Wynne Delacoma is a Chicago-based freelance writer.