Program Notes & Guest Artists - Opening Night: Bernstein & Gershwin



Program Notes by Daniel Chetel

The centennial celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s life throughout 2018 has given us a chance to remember and revel in this American icon’s musical achievements and contributions from kaleidoscopic perspectives. Bernstein’s musical identity was wide-ranging: he was a composer, conductor, pianist, educator, speaker, and activist.

Last year’s Lexington Philharmonic Season Finale concert featured Gustav Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 5 in C minor, which fascinated Bernstein, the conductor. It was a work that he returned to over and over again, mining the composer’s notes and directions for meaning and understanding. Tonight, as the Lexington Philharmonic opens its 2018-2019 Season—its tenth and final season under the direction of Music Director Scott Terrell—we shift our view more towards Bernstein’s life as a composer and performer, and we consider his role as a musical chameleon, enjoying his celebrated and complicated roles in the high art world of the symphony orchestra and opera house and the everyday space of the popular theatre.

Inspired by a book of the same name by the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, Candide tells the story of a young, naïve man who makes his way through an unforgiving world: he experiences war, torture, and greed, all while being educated by his mentor, Pangloss. Cunegonde, the love of his life, is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen but perhaps also the most vain. Our main characters find their way from their Westphalian home to such far off places as Paris, Lisbon, Cadiz, Montevideo, Suriname, and the golden city of Eldorado throughout this wide-ranging allegorical narrative. Bernstein—along with his collaborators Richard Wilbur, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, and Dorothy Parker— conceived of this work within the context of the Joseph McCarthy-era political climate in which American artists were being systematically persecuted and blacklisted for being “Un-American.” Never content with the status quo, Bernstein used his voice as a composer to forge this searing critique of contemporary American society.

Candide is deeply sarcastic and disapproving in the way it depicts Dr. Pangloss’s so-called “Best of All Possible Worlds” and Cunegonde’s oblivious narcissism (“Glitter and Be Gay”). At the same time, the show is also profoundly sincere in its emotional finale “Make our Garden Grow,” in which these same characters redouble their efforts to build a positive future out of their broken world. This work—reminiscent of Bernstein’s own complex identity— contains multitudes and has the capacity to challenge one’s mind and break one’s heart in equal measure.

George Gershwin, much like Bernstein, was seemingly caught between these same two worlds: the high-art world of “classical music” and the more popular music of the stage and everyday life. A piece like Rhapsody in Blue brings those two worlds together into a hybrid form of jazz- and dance- inspired music for the symphony orchestra and piano, enhanced by the saxophones, brass, and percussion you might find in your local dance hall or Broadway orchestra pit. Gershwin’s compositional output is full of these genre-defying works: his opera Porgy and Bess depicts life in 1930s Charleston, South Carolina by incorporating elements of the African- American spiritual and gospel- inspired music, and his orchestral showpiece Cuban Overture includes Latin dance rhythms.

Rhapsody in Blue was commissioned by the American bandleader Paul Whiteman and premiered in 1924 at a concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music at Aeolian Hall in New York City with Gershwin himself at the piano. The composer was just twenty-six years old and on track to the top of the American musical world. During Bernstein’s career as a performer, he likewise conducted and performed the piano solo part with symphony orchestras: Bernstein certainly loved acting as a master of ceremonies, but perhaps also enjoyed evoking the more classical era role of a Mozart-ian composer- performer, leading his ensemble from the harpsichord.

While Candide addresses political discussions of the public space of the 1950s, Bernstein’s 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti addresses equally essential questions that are more domestic in nature. A central couple, Dinah and Sam, seem to have achieved a stable, suburban life but cannot find happiness together in their own home. Bernstein wrote both the libretto and the music, and the story of the opera certainly echoes elements of his personal life. (While Trouble in Tahiti is one of Bernstein’s lesser-known works for the stage, its spirit is certainly heard again in Bernstein collaborator Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, which addresses the state of marriage and personal identity through the voice of Sondheim’s enduring bachelor, Bobby, and his numerous married- couple friends.)

Trouble in Tahiti is set across seven scenes in which we see Sam and Dinah together at home, Sam on his own at the gym, Dinah speaking to her psychiatrist, and Sam and Dinah meeting each other unexpectedly in the city. Dinah wishes deeply to be free from her domestic responsibilities and imagines her life through the characters that she sees on the television screen at home. In the opera’s final scene the couple tries to work through the challenges of their relationship and their expectations of each other; exasperated, they instead opt to go to the movies where they see an diverting lm about love in a far away land, Trouble in Tahiti.

Bernstein conducted the premiere in 1952 at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts—an idyllically forested, sleepy, college- town suburb of Boston—where he was teaching at the time. Trouble in Tahiti reminds us that while Bernstein’s music often takes us on fantastic journeys, it is also deeply grounded in real world predicaments, always tethered to his vision of America and what that vision meant to him.


Ryan Shirar is a New York City-based pianist and musician, whose range of talents include conducting, music directing, arranging, composing and teaching. His repertoire ranges from classical to pop to Broadway. Shirar has performed at venues including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Aspen Music Festival, New York’s Town Hall, and Feinstein’s/54 Below and with orchestras including Austin Symphony, Harrisburg Symphony, Columbus Symphony, and Cleveland Pops. Shirar made his Broadway debut in 2015 as pianist for The Visit, and is currently the music director and orchestrator for the international performing group, The Four Phantoms. He also performs with SpotOn Entertainment and Manhattan Concert Productions. Shirar received his Masters in Orchestral Conducting from Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music and his Bachelor of Arts in piano from the University of Kentucky. He enjoys returning to Lexington and is always grateful for the opportunity to play Rhapsody in Blue since he and George Gershwin share the same birthday.


Director/choreographer and librettist John de los Santos has been called a “brilliant combination of literary insight and choreographic creativity.” He has staged a range of productions that include opera, musicals, plays, ballet, concerts, and workshop readings. His extensive background as an actor and dancer has given him a incisive dramatic perspective which has yielded stagings hailed as “vivid theater”, “imaginative and sophisticated”, and “stark and unflinching”. John last collaborated with LexPhil for the 2013 production of Maria de Buenos Aires. Learn more about John at his website.

American Cecelia Hall is one of today’s most established young mezzo-sopranos. Hailed by the Financial Times for her ‘easy exibility, arresting poise and enveloping warmth’, she has appeared since 2014 in leading roles at many of the world’s finest stages, including Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper, The Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Canadian Opera Company, Opera Philadelphia, and Oper Frankfurt, where she is a member of the ensemble.
Learn more about Cecelia at her website.

A noted interpreter of Mozart and bel canto repertoire as well as many of today’s living composers, Keith Phares is regarded as one of his generation’s most versatile artists. Recent engagements have included Gasparo in Donizetti’s Rita with Chicago Opera Theater; Count in Le nozze di Figaro with Opera Saratoga and Opera Maine; Ford in Falsta with Opera Omaha; Zurga in Les pêcheurs de perles with Seattle Opera; Hurstwood in the world premiere of Sister Carrie with Florentine Opera; Elder Tull in the world premiere of Riders of the Purple Sage with Arizona Opera; and John Sorel in The Consul, and Orin Mannion in Mourning Becomes Electra with Florida Grand Opera. A graduate of the Juilliard Opera Center, he was a national winner of the 1998 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a finalist in the 1999 Eleanor McCollum Competition of the Houston Grand Opera.
Learn more about Keith at his website.


Lauded for his “consistent, attractive baritone” (Opera News), Wisconsin-born baritone Timothy Murray is a recent winner of the Opera America Career Blueprints grant. This season, Mr. Murray joins the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and debuts with Arizona Opera as William Dale in Kevin Puts’ Silent Night. A graduate of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City Resident Artist Program, Mr. Murray covered the title roles in both Eugene Onegin and Il barbiere di Siviglia, and performed Marullo in Rigoletto and Guy Cotter in Everest. Mr. Murray is a 2018 District Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
Learn more at his website.

Hailed as “the hilarious Thomas J. Capobianco,” tenor T.J. Capobianco is joining the Barbara and Halsey Sandford Studio Artist Program with Kentucky Opera in the 2018- 19 season. He will debut as Monastatos and First Armored Guard in The Magic Flute, Nissen in Enemies, a Love Story, and Borsa in Rigoletto. In the spring of 2018, T.J. performed with Des Moines Metro Opera’s traveling OPERA Iowa troupe portraying Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville and Jack in John Davies’ children’s opera Jack and the Beanstalk. T.J. appeared with New Orleans Opera in October 2017 where he made his debut as Beppe in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci; he also debuted as King Kaspar in Amahl and the Night Visitors with Opéra Louisiane in December 2017. Raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, T.J. earned his Master of Music in Vocal Performance from the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.
Learn more at his website.

Canadian mezzo-soprano Reilly Nelson has been praised by the Boston Music Intelligencer for her “bright and glowing [voice], with a bit of an edge when needed.” Reilly recently completed her graduate studies at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music (CCM), where she was a student of Thomas Baresel. The 2017-2018 season included two role debuts for Ms. Nelson: Flora Bervoix in La Traviata and Vera Lynn in the United States premier of Another Brick in the Wall with Cincinnati Opera. Reilly was the winner of the 2017 Middle/East Tennessee District MONC audition and a 2016 finalist and winner of the Carolyn Weber Award in the Kurt Weill Foundation’s Lotte Lenya Competition.
Learn more at her website.