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.

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New England Philharmonic President Ann Teixeira offers inside look at 40th Anniversary concert March 4

Led by Maestro Richard Pittman, the New England Philharmonic (NEP) has a stellar reputation for bringing magnificent works and uncovering promising masterpieces in each of their meticulously crafted concerts.  Music Director Richard Pittman is celebrating his 20th anniversary with the orchestra as New England Philharmonic presents its 40th anniversary concert featuring Michael Tippett’s stirring and thought-provoking A Child of Our Time with Chorus pro Musica under the direction of Jamie Kirsch.  This exciting concert will be held at Tsai Performance Center at Boston University on Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m.  A number soloists and musicians are slated to perform at this special celebratory concert.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

New England Philharmonic President Ann Teixeira offers an inside look at how each season’s works are selected, their annual Call for Scores competition, and how to celebrate two anniversaries in one extraordinary night.

Jeanne Denizard:  How did this 40th anniversary season come together and how were the works selected?  I understand part of the process is NEP holds an annual Call for Scores competition.  Was there a specific theme involved this year?

Ann Teixeira:  Music Director Richard Pittman is responsible for the music selection each season.  Once the orchestra and Board know what he has chosen for the next season, the season’s theme is identified and each concert is given a title based on the relationship among the pieces.  When he selects a program’s theme in advance, it is almost always selected for the family concert.  This year’s family concert was called, The Big Bad Wolf.

JD:  On March 4, the NEP will hold an anniversary concert celebrating two anniversaries at Tsai Performance Center at 8 p.m.  A number of musicians and soloists will be returning for this big night.  What inspired highlighting these two significant anniversaries in one evening?

AT:  The orchestra is primarily celebrating NEP’s 40th anniversary, but this is also the first of Richard Pittman’s 20th year as Music Director.  We are fortunate to have a number of musicians who are long time members of the orchestra on stage for the 40th anniversary concert, including violinist Louise Myers, who joined it as early as its third concert in 1977, and 30-year NEP cellist Jennifer Snodgrass among others.

As the NEP did for its 30th and 35th Anniversary concerts, we will once again perform a vocal work that includes a chorus and vocal soloists.  For the 30th anniversary, it was Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck and for the 35th anniversary, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

The 40th Anniversary concert features Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time with Chorus pro Musica and soloists soprano Sarah Pelletier, mezzo-soprano Krista River, tenor Charles Blandy, and bass Sumner Thompson.  The NEP celebrates another anniversary as this same piece, also with Chorus pro Musica, was performed 25 years ago this season under Ron Feldman’s music direction.

JD:  This year also marks NEP’s 20th anniversary under the direction of award-winning Music Director and Maestro Richard Pittman.  Not only has he led the orchestra to a number of honors, but he has conducted orchestras all over the world and founded a distinguished ensemble, Boston Musica Viva.  Please tell me about how his presence enriched the NEP over the years.

AT:  Dick is a widely recognized and often honored conductor both in the U.S. and Europe.  He founded the Boston Musica Viva, an ensemble widely regarded as one of the best contemporary music ensembles in the world, 47 years ago.  He has enriched the NEP with his broad and deep knowledge of contemporary classical music and the high standards he applies to his repertoire selection.  He selects only the ‘best’ of contemporary classical music which not only utilizes as many instruments and musicians within each piece, but accommodate our part-time musicians.   Program selection is a balancing act!   The programming and training he provides leads to the orchestra’s musical growth and retention of them as well as higher quality performances often recognized by reviewers as equivalent to professional orchestras.

Composers are happy and honored to have the NEP select their compositions for performance due to Dick’s relationship with them.  The composers often attend the performance and speak to the audience about their composition and sometimes the process of composing it, enriching the concert experience.  Composers also sometimes attend a rehearsal, which further enriches the musicians’ experience and training.

JD:  This season features fanfares from former composers-in-residence.  This particular concert features Melospiza melodia from two-term composer-in-residence, Richard Cornell, who wrote this specifically for the anniversary.

AT:  Yes, Richard Cornell used song of the sparrow as his inspiration for this piece.

JD:  NEP features Michael Tippett’s  A Child of Our Time, which is inspired by what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and is a significant work against oppression in the world.  Why this particular work?  I understand that it resonates especially with today’s world.

AT:  When Maestro Pittman selected A Child of Our Time a year ago, he had no prescience for how relevant its statements would be to the current political environment.  While it is explicitly a statement against oppression, it also progresses into a statement about tolerance, thus making it currently relevant on both dimensions.  It is serendipity, it is so relevant, and we hope it will leave its impact on the audience.

New England Philharmonic presents the 40th Anniversary Concert:  A Child of Our Time at the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University on Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m.  Click here for tickets, how to become a subscriber, and more information.

The New England Philharmonic thrives on the support of the community.  Click here to support the NEP, volunteer, and sign up for their newsletter for upcoming performances and more.