SO MUCH can be said about the life and art of Leonard Bernstein, the celebrated musician and composer responsible for such enduring work as West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide.
When he died in 1990, Bernstein had become arguably the most critically acclaimed composer and conductor in American music history. He was the first conductor to give television lectures on classical music, and has long been cited as an instrumental figure in the careers of many luminaries who came after him.
Nearly three decades after his death, he’s still being honored around the world thanks to former collaborators and colleagues like Kurt Ollman.
Ollman, a noted operatic baritone with a successful career in his own right, is known by many as having been a longtime friend and collaborator of Bernstein. His association with Bernstein goes back to 1982, when he performed in the latter’s acclaimed opera A Quiet Place.
The singer, who calls Savannah home, is celebrating the icon’s centennial by staging a show at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah featuring just a portion of his remarkable catalog.
“We met about 10 years before he died,” Ollmann says of his relationship with Bernstein. “I was invited to take part in the workshop of the opera he was writing at that time. I was very young, and my education was not primarily in music – I was a French literature major in college. I say that because, here I was learning very difficult music under a very high-pressure and high level circumstance.”
During those early days working with Bernstein, Ollmann says he met a number of influential figures including Stephen Sondheim and Lauren Bacall. It was his work with Bernstein, however, that made the biggest impression on the young singer.
“I hardly had even an idea of what it would be like to work under Bernstein, and there I was,” he says. “It was quite amazing [laughs]. Very formative.”
The concert at the Unitarian Church will be accompanied by pianist Kelly Blackmarr, who has been with the UU church since 1991 and serving as its musical director since 1993. A talented multi-instrumentalist in her own right, Blackmarr has worked with Ollmann before and is particularly excited to have the chance to dissect Bernstein’s compositions alongside one of his collaborators.
Blackmarr credits Ollmann with picking the Bernstein selections that will be featured in the show.
“Kurt really is the curator for the whole concert,” she says. “It’s been a really exciting process for me. It’s always exciting to work with Kurt, because he’s a world class performer. We also have two college students and two high school students, very talented students, performing in this concert. So it gives it a lot of different flavors, to be able to present a variety of music. It’s not just one person singing everything – as wonderful as Kurt is, I think he was brilliant in thinking about curating a concert that could really demonstrate the variety of work that Bernstein has to offer.”
Considering the vast and varied body of work that Bernstein created throughout his lifetime, there was much to choose from when curating the upcoming tribute concert. For Ollmann, it was difficult to pick a favorite composition – but there are several that he feels are standouts during this particular show.
“There’s a piece from Candide where the old philosopher sings to his four students, it’s called ‘The Best of All Possible Worlds.’ I thought it would be fun to do it, but it obviously requires four other sings. That was where I got the idea of doing this with four young singers. Back in 1990, I sang the part of the young baritone student, but now I’m more suited to doing the old man [laughs],” he says.
“I wasn’t so much interested in doing a solo concert. I wanted to do something to make it interesting. In other concerts I’ve done, I’ve tried to have an element of bringing the musical community together in new ways, so I thought it would be great to get four high school and college people involved. So much of the music is written for young people, like West Side Story or On the Town. Most of the characters in Candide are very young, so that piece is very central to the concept of this program.”
Blackmarr also has a difficult time choosing a highlight, which she attributes to the variety of the work.
“One thing that is amazing to me about Bernstein is how he can take these beautiful, memorable melodies that can be very accessible to anyone whether you’re a musician or not, and then enrich them with these gorgeous harmonic structures that you can sit back and listen to as a non-musician and appreciate how beautiful it is,” she says.
“As a musician, when you’re working on it you go, ‘Oh my god! That’s what makes it so beautiful,’ because you have all these dissonances in the harmonic structure that are sort of the underpinnings for it. And it makes you realize that this is where the emotional pull of this music comes from. That’s really more of what has struck me rather than one particular piece.”
Ollmann agrees, saying that the sophistication of the music is what makes Bernstein’s compositions stand out. Teaching that music to younger people, and enriching younger generations with the knowledge and experiences he’s acquired throughout his career, is what Ollmann finds most exciting about living in Savannah and working on shows like the Bernstein centennial.
“I’ve always tried to involve younger people, to have there be some kind of educational element in the least institutional way [laughs]. I’ve found that talking to, or meeting, or possibly working in some way with, some of the great singers of generations before me, made me feel connected,” he tells us.
“Even though I couldn’t have maybe said exactly what I learned, it somehow made me part of the great tradition of whatever kind of music these people represented. It sort of expanded my sense of what I could do and who I could be.”