Laurence Lesser shares music memories as New England Conservatory celebrates his 80th birthday and Leonard Bernstein’s centennial in free opening concert

‘You don’t choose music.  It chooses you.’  This is just one of renowned cellist and longtime New England Conservatory (NEC) President Emeritus Laurence Lesser’s thoughts on music as Lesser celebrates his 80th birthday in a big way with the New England Conservatory Philharmonic and acclaimed conductor Hugh Wolff on Wednesday, September 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Taking place at NEC’s Jordan Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, this free concert also pays tribute to Boston native, legendary composer, and NEC Prep alumnus Leonard Bernstein’s centennial with Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and much more.  Click here for more information and how to reserve seats to this extraordinary concert.

NEC’s Laurence Lesser, who will be performing at the concert, discusses his history with music, the cello, career surprises, and recording Hollywood soundtracks from films such as Rosemary’s Baby.

Sleepless Critic:  I understand you were invited to perform with the New England Conservatory Philharmonic and conductor Hugh Wolff for your 80th birthday celebration.  Were you able to choose your own music?

Laurence Lesser:  I asked to do Ernest Bloch’s  Schelomo because it is a wonderful piece full of personal meaning for me.

SC:  What first interested you in music, especially the cello?

LL:  My parents took me to LA Phil Children’s concerts when I was about 5.  I wanted to play the double bass, but they thought that was too big for a little guy and gave me a cello for my 6th birthday.

SC:  I understand you play a 1622 Italian-made cello.  There must be an amazing story behind how you obtained it.

LL:  I was looking for a great old Italian cello with a true solo voice and bigger dimension than what I was using.  I saw it in a shop in London, England, but I was second in line for it.  Fortunately very soon afterwards in 1972, it came my way.

Leonard Lesser

Photo credit to Carlin Ma Photography

SC:  What was it that encouraged you to pursue music as a career?

LL:  My mother was a pianist.  My two older brothers and I had music lessons from an early age.  When I went to college at Harvard to study mathematics, I soon knew that mathematics was the wrong path for me and it had to be music.  You don’t choose music, it chooses you.

SC:  Music afforded you a great deal of opportunities, just a couple of them recording Hollywood soundtracks such as Rosemary’s Baby and Finian’s Rainbow and traveling the world.  What kind of surprise opportunities have you experienced in your career or a moment where you couldn’t believe this is happening to you?

LL:  I played in chamber music concerts with Jascha Heifetz and my teacher Gregor Piatigorsky and we performed at Carnegie Hall.  Such a wonderful place and an amazing memory to be on stage with those musical giants!

SC:  How did you end up working at the New England Conservatory?  I understand during your tenure as President, you were part of the restoration of Jordan Hall and you curated ‘First Mondays at Jordan Hall.’  Please tell me about that.

LL:  I was invited to teach there by then President, Gunther Schuller.  Jordan Hall is one of the greatest ‘rooms’ for music in the world.  It had become shabby.  When I was President, my team joined me in focusing on the restoration.  ‘First Monday’ concerts were the outgrowth of ad hoc faculty chamber concerts.  I decided to put some structure into it and it’s now beginning its 34th season!

SC:  Congratulations!  Jordan Hall is a majestic venue.  You’ve enjoyed a wonderful career in music from teaching to performing.  What kind of music do you like to listen to?

LL:  I can listen to anything that ‘speaks’ to me.  Any medium suits me and I don’t simply listen to pieces I have heard over and over again.

SC:  What music goals are you pursuing now?

LL:  I think it’s too late in my life to go on a completely new road, but I intend to keep pursuing excellence in what I am currently doing.

SC:  For those pursing music as a career, what was the best piece of advice you were given?

LL:  My father, who was not a musician, said you should do what you love in life.  It’s not for personal glory or ego.  Simply keep remembering that you are doing this for listeners who want something.

Attend Leonard Lesser’s 80th birthday and celebrate the music of Leonard Bernstein on Wednesday, September 26 at 7:30 p.m.  New England Conservatory will pay tribute to Leonard Bernstein’s works all season, including the New England premiere of the exhibition, Leonard Bernstein at 100, unveiling on September 24 and continuing through November 11 at NEC’s Student and Performance Center.  Click here to learn how to support NEC and here for all of NEC’s upcoming concerts this season.

REVIEW: With comic wit and vintage flair, Boston Ballet’s ‘Genius at Play’ is an exhilarating dance celebration

Honoring the centennial birthdays of legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, The Boston Ballet opened its 55th season on a joyous, lighthearted note on Thursday, September 6 with Genius at Play continuing through Sunday, September 16 at the Boston Opera HouseGenius at Play certainly lives up to its name, a production with glimpses of Robbins and Bernstein’s signature dance moves, music, and lively banter sure to leave the audience in carefree spirits.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Accomplished conductor Beatrice Jona Affron opened the show, leading the orchestra with Leonard Bernstein’s sparkling and triumphant masterpiece Overture to Candide, first performed in 1957.  Much of Genius at Play celebrates the very nature of dance and its playful competitiveness and Overture to Candide quite fittingly sets the tone.

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Boston Ballet in Jerome Robbin’s Interplay; photo by Rosalie O’Connor; courtesy of Boston Ballet

Interplay, with choreography by Jerome Robbins, rewinds the clock as women pile on high ponytails in casual, colorful costumes by Santo Loquasto.  As the mischievous, upbeat rhythm of Morton Gould’s American Concertette plays, dancers Maria Alvarez, Dawn Atkins, Chyrstyn Fentroy, Dalay Parrondo, Isaac Akiba, Paul Craig, Sun Woo Lee, and Lawrence Rines take part in some friendly competition.  Creativity runs wild as dancers perform lifts, spins, and high leaps while also paying subtle homage to Robbins as they rhythmically snap their fingers and playfully shake their hips.

With choreography by Jerome Robbins and jazz-infused music by Leonard Bernstein, Fancy Free is the source material for what became the hit Broadway musical and Academy award-winning film, On the Town, a tale about three sailors portrayed here by Irlan Silva, Derek Dunn, and Michael Ryan, who are on shore leave in New York City.  Taking a page from the old movies with cheerful 40s costumes by Kermit Love, these sailors realize they are in over their head when they meet three passers-by portrayed by Emily Entingh, Viktorina Kapitonova, and Dawn Atkins.  With a multi-dimensional, romantically-lit set equipped with a vivid, leaning lamp post, these sailors depict a wonderful camaraderie as they embark on an amusing night with plenty of surprises.

With music by Philip Glass and choreography by Jerome Robbins, Glass Pieces is quite the gem.  Taking place in what looks like a subway station, Glass Pieces has a palpable rhythm and urgency as dancers are unleashed into a celebration of dance in the city.  From a plain landscape into a spectrum of color, Glass Pieces transforms into a splendid piece of artistry as dancers perform in a variety of styles in silhouette, reflective, and in unison.

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Lia Cirio and Paulo Arrais in Jerome Robbin’s Glass Pieces; photo by Rosalie O’Connor; courtesy of Boston Ballet

With comic wit, vintage flair, and renowned choreography, The Boston Ballet proudly presents Genius at Play through Sunday, September 16 at the Boston Opera House.  Click here for more information and for tickets.  For future events and more, follow Boston Ballet on Facebook and Twitter.

REVIEW: The Boston Pops blended uplifting Bernstein tribute with sizzling footwork in ‘Dance to the Movies’

The Boston Pops turned up the heat as dancers from Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and America’s Got Talent as well as American Idol finalists joined Academy Award-nominee Lesley Ann Warren as Scott Stander presented Dance to the Movies on June 9 at Symphony Hall.  Conducted by renowned Music Director Keith Lockhart and filled with memorable moments from some of Hollywood and Broadway’s most popular films, Dance to the Movies lit the stage as part of Boston Pops 133rd spectacular season.  Dedicated to legendary, Lawrence-born composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s centennial this season, click here for upcoming Boston Pops performances including details for the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on July 4.

Boston Pops Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops_WT26691 (Winslow Townson)

Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops (Winslow Townson)

Before launching into Dance to the Movies, The Boston Pops performed a few remarkable Bernstein selections which included an urgent, masterful orchestration composed by John Williams, a piece first conducted for Bernstein’s 70th anniversary called, To Lenny! To Lenny!  The orchestration, with equal parts bursting triumph and quiet contemplation, set the perfect tone for this uplifting show.  The Bernstein tribute continued with sparkling and upbeat Overture to Candide and the chiming, peerless orchestration of Bernstein’s spiritual Simple Song from Mass.

Boston Pops John Williams and Leonard Bernstein at Harvard Night at the Pops, June 6, 1989 (Donald Dietz)

Boston Pops John Williams and Leonard Bernstein at Harvard Night at the Pops, June 6, 1989 (Donald Dietz)

Winner of 2017’s Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Concerto Competition and recipient of Harry & Marion Dubbs Brookline Youth Concerts Award, captivating violinist Haig Hovsepian, delivered a passionate and intense solo performance as he played Sibelius’s First Movement:  Allegro moderato, from Violin Concerto in D Minor.  An especially touching moment occurred when a couple of his proud family members rushed to the stage to congratulate him after he finished his piece.

The Boston Pops seamlessly tied in Bernstein’s tribute with a sensational film dance montage by Susan Dangel and Dick Bartlett, weaving in dance scenes from Risky Business, Austin Powers:  International Man of Mystery, Burn After Reading, The Greatest Showman, Pulp Fiction, Mrs. Doubtfire, My Best Friend’s Wedding and more to acclaimed dance songs from Bernstein’s musical masterpiece, West Side Story.

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Puttin’ on the Ritz Photo courtesy of Hilary Scott

Boasting an enormously talented cast, Dance to the Movies offered vintage flair by Bair/Pututau costumes and sizzling footwork, taking on classic numbers like Puttin’ on the Ritz and Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend/Material Girl from the film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Hearkening to the age of Fred Astaire, dancers dressed in gold Lemay cocktail dresses and suits with coat and tails then delivered a double take of dancers dressed in Marilyn Monroe’s signature pink gowns with dripping diamonds respectively.  A gorgeously sparkling fringed gown seemed to have a life of its own on Anna Trebunskaya as she swayed with Tristan MacManus to the spicy number, Cuban Pete from the film, The Mask.

Academy Award-nominee Lesley Ann Warren, a television and film veteran known for Cinderella and Clue, delivered a reflective Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and a flirtatious version of Blues in the Night from the film by the same name.  Warren still has that charismatic charm as she engaged the audience.

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Lesley Ann Warren in her Cinderella crown Photo courtesy of the Boston Pops

Dance to the Movies tackled Broadway with dance melodies from Chicago and Grease, which featured a performance by American Idol finalist Vonzell Solomon singing Roxy Hart.  Vonzell delivered a show stopping performance singing I’ll Always Love You from The Bodyguard before taking the stage with American Idol finalist Von Smith for a stirring tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch including the songs, Through the Eyes of Love from the film, Ice Castles and The Way We Were.

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Dance to the Movies takes on ‘Chicago’ Photo courtesy of Hilary Scott

One of the most impressive dance performances seemed a dangerous feat to the tune, Unchained Medley from the film, Ghost sung by Von Smith.  Featuring Randi Strong and Jonathan Platero, it was a rapturous, athletic number recreating a scene from the film featuring remarkable flips and daring spins. Dirty Dancing’s iconic dance number, (I Had) The Time of My Life, featuring a trio of couples, was a beautiful display complete with The Lift.

Dance to the Movies boasted Dancing with the Stars’ Tristan MacManus, Anna Trebunskaya, Magda Fialek, Anya Fuchs and Oksana Platero, from So You Think You Can Dance Jonathan Platero, Randi Strong, and Jaymz Tuaileva, America’s Got Talent’s Antonio Martinez, with Carl James Bair, Alisa Davtyan, Timothy Lewis, Kateryna Klishyna, and Tony Pututau.  Click here to see where Dance to the Movies will appear next.

Dedicated to legendary, Lawrence-born composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s centennial this season, click here for upcoming Boston Pops performances including details for the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on July 4.  Follow Boston Pops on Twitter and Facebook.

For Performing Arts news, interviews, reviews, and much more in Boston and beyond, follow us on Facebook @sleeplesscritic and subscribe.

 

 

 

REVIEW: NPR’s Rob Kapilow’s engaging ‘What Makes It Great? The Songs of Leonard Bernstein’ hit all the right notes

NPR’s famous composer, conductor, and music commentator Rob Kapilow certainly knows his way around a baby grand piano.  Under soft lights and in front of a full house, he is once again ready to transform the way the audience hears and understands some classic tunes.

In honor of the legendary composer and playwright Leonard Bernstein and the centennial of his birth, Rob Kapilow took his popular, 22nd annual What Makes It Great series to Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, which is Bernstein’s alma mater on Friday, March 9 for one night only.  Celebrity Series of Boston presented What Makes it Great? with Rob Kapilow and Jessica Rivera:  The Songs of Leonard Bernstein featuring an array of legendary Broadway songs during Leonard Bernstein’s time, delving into its brilliant, emotional quality and style through its carefully selected musical notes. Part teacher, humorist, and historian, Rob Kapilow proved once again that this engaging series is as fascinating as ever.  Click here for more on What Makes it Great and here for more on Celebrity Series of Boston.

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Renowned soprano Jessica Rivera Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Calling on a few of Broadway’s most enchanting and classic love songs, Rob was accompanied by renowned soprano Jessica Rivera.  Adorned in a shimmering black dress, Jessica’s versatile, impressive vocals ranged from lighthearted to passionate yearning as Rob had Jessica peel back the layers of each song, revealing what makes each tune shine.  With humor and grace, Rob and Jessica also revealed what each song might have sounded like without its individuality.  What Makes It Great never fails as an eye-opening experience.

Delving into the musical atmosphere and history of Leonard Bernstein’s time, Rob chose a selection of powerful, yet dreamy classic Broadway songs reflective of this era while showing how they are also vastly ahead of their time.  From dreamy songs such as, A Little Bit in Love from Bernstein’s Wonderful Town to the high-spirited I Could Have Danced All Night from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady to the powerful Somewhere from Bernstein’s West Side Story, Rob shows how the composer ties the musical elements together to enhance the listener’s musical experience.  For example, he describes how Leonard Bernstein’s wildly successful West Side Story is a perfect fusion of classical technique to popular theatre.

Evan Kinnane, a renowned Boston tenor, joined Rob and Jessica for a special stage performance of Tonight after Rob described what makes this song so special.  Full of passion and excitement, Evan and Jessica have a mesmerizing rapport and their marvelous blend of vocals demonstrates the song’s and Bernstein’s timeless appeal.

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NPR’s Rob Kapilow and his piano Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

After 22 years, Rob Kapilow continues to captivate audiences with his vast musical knowledge, sense of humor, and his careful analysis of what makes music such a rich, fulfilling experience.  Capping off the evening, Jessica Rivera poignantly sang Some Other Time from the Leonard Bernstein’s musical, On the Town, about how quickly time passes by.  It’s a fond farewell until next time.

Celebrity Series of Boston continues its stellar season with the 50th Anniversary of Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, acclaimed soprano and Broadway star Audra McDonald, Ira Glass, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and much more.  Click here for more information and for tickets. Tickets can also be obtained at the Celebrity Series of Boston’s box office.  Follow Celebrity Series of Boston on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

For Performing Arts news, interviews, reviews, and much more in Boston and beyond, follow us on Facebook @sleeplesscritic and subscribe.

Renowned performers Alan Cumming, Audra McDonald, and Pilobolus part of Celebrity Series of Boston’s new season

Celebrity Series of Boston is about to close out another spectacular season with the Boston debut of L.A. Dance Project from Friday, May 19 through Sunday, May 21 at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  Sunday’s final performance will feature a free, brief talk with Ballet Master Sebastien Marcovici following the performance.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Alan Cumming

Multi-talented star Alan Cumming opens new Celebrity Series of Boston season on October 6 Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

It won’t be too long until Celebrity Series of Boston will start its 2017-18 season in October and features a wide range of performances in music, dance, and more taking the stage at renowned concert halls around Boston.  Kicking off the season is Tony award-winning actor, singer, and author Alan Cumming, who will take the stage at the Sanders Theatre for one night only performance on Friday, October 6 at 8 p.m.  He currently hosts WGBH’s Masterpiece Mystery.

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Multi-talented Audra McDonald performs on April 13 2018. Publicity photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Some of the highlights of the fall season include best-selling author David Sedaris, the return of acclaimed dance troupe Pilobolus, Joan Osborne Sings the Songs of Bob Dylan, another edition of What Makes it Great with Rob Kapilow on Mozart Symphony No. 40, and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton.  Next spring also offers a wide spectrum of performances including the return of Brazilian dance troupe Grupo Corpo, Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, Yo-Yo Ma, Grammy-winning sextet eighth blackbird, another edition of What Makes it Great with Rob Kapilow featuring the Songs of Leonard Bernstein, and the return of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and multi-talented Audra McDonald.

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Joan Osborne sings the Songs of Bob Dylan November 3 Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Click here for a closer look at next season and how to get tickets.  Click here to learn about discounts and become a subscriber and get a wide range of benefits.  Follow Celebrity Series of Boston on Facebook and Twitter for updates and more.