“Fly, Eagles, fly on the road to victory.”
As one would expect, the 2018 Super Bowl Champions’ anthem has been sung across Philly, from sports bars to the victory parade on February 9. But one might not expect The Philly POPS to also get into the green.
But that’s exactly what the orchestra did at the Kimmel Center during “Lenny’s Revolution,” a tribute concert to the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein.
Midway through “Conga!,” from the musical “Wonderful Town,” an Eagles mascot appeared on stage and joined a conga line. Renowned conductor and Bernstein protégé David Charles Abell placed an underdog mask on his head, while the 150-member Festival Chorus shook green pompons and sung the Eagles fight song.
In anticipation of the upcoming exhibit Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music at the National Museum of American Jewish History, the performance on Feb. 2-4 was part of an ongoing citywide celebration of the late composer’s centenary.
The rah-rah performance got a pass, considering the Super Bowl was that weekend, and the audience clearly enjoyed the Eagles shout-out. But the number certainly did not need the gimmick. First, the lyrics to “Conga!” had already been altered to incorporate Philly. Second, Broadway star Alli Mauzey’s sharp enunciation of the wordy song and portrayal of a frustrated journalist asking questions to a conga-dancing Brazilian Navy was more than amusing in-and-of itself.
But more importantly, what would the great Bernstein think of the spectacle? Well, one cannot definitively say, since he passed away in 1990, but he probably would have loved it.
According to Abell, Bernstein was far from pretentious. The Jewish composer famously wrote for both classical and musical theater, despite the perceived low-brow nature of the latter.
It was that charismatic spirit that was on full display. The concert, which leaned heavily on Bernstein’s musical scores, was simply put — fun. The night covered a range of Bernstein’s work, from his major success “On The Town” to his major flop “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Out of the concert’s program, the three excerpts from “Mass” were the most poignant because of Abell’s personal connection to the piece. One of Bernstein’s last students, Abell first met the composer as a 13-year-old from Philadelphia when he sang in the show’s choir during its premier at the Kennedy Center. Years later, Abell made his professional debut as a conductor with “Mass” in Berlin, Germany.
Abell attributed Bernstein’s inspiration for “Mass,” a show about congregants questioning religion during a Roman Catholic Mass, to Talmudic study — and chutzpah too. The composer’s father, Samuel Joseph Bernstein, was a Talmudic scholar and inevitably passed down the tradition of questioning to his son.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the night was the tribute to “West Side Story,” one of Bernstein’s most famous compositions. Broadway stars Mauzey, Lisa Vroman, and Ryan Silverman — who recently played Tony in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert version of “West Side Story” — sang “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” and “Mambo.” At the end of the concert, the stars and orchestra played an encore of “America.” But while the performers committed fully to their parts, it was uncomfortable to have three white actors doing Puerto Rican accents — not unlike Jewish, white actress Natalie Wood, who played the lead Maria in the 1961 film.
But overall, hats off to the Philly POPS orchestra that made Bernstein’s difficult pieces seem effortless to play.
In the audience was Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, who praised The Philly POPS for honoring her father.
“It’s great that my father has such a direct connection to Philadelphia because he went to Curtis [Institute of Music],” said Jamie to The Philadelphia Jewish Voice. “So when I come to Philadelphia, I feel really connected to this place too. And when I hear my father’s music in Philly, it all just comes together so beautifully.”
If you are wondering about Jamie’s feelings towards the Eagles scene during the concert, when asked for further comment, she cheered, “Go Eagles! What else could I possibly say at this moment?”