A song of Bernadette (Peters, of course)

Bernadette Peters 1

Buckle up, Broadway Babies. It’s time to revel in all things Bernadette. The loveable diva Bernadette Peters, she of the curls, the va-va-voom figure and the knockout voice, will return to the concert stage in Davies Hall to perform with the San Francisco Symphony on Tuesday, July 23 (for ticket info, click here). This is a re-scheduled concert after the pesky musicians’ strike scrapped Peters’ previous plans to dazzle us with her latest concert.

Most recently, Peters popped up on NBC’s love-to-hate musical TV show “Smash,” and she was one of the best things about the show (along with the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman). The 65-year-old beauty’s last turn on Broadway was in the stunning revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, and she proved she’s lost nothing in the dramatic department.

The most astonishing thing about Peters is the duration and diversity of her career. She has done it all. And now, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, let’s revisit some highlights, shall we?

In 1979, Peters starred in The Jerk with then-love Steve Martin. She’s hilarious, but this duet on “Tonight You Belong to Me” is sincerely sweet.

One of the greatest things about the ’70s was the last hurrah of the variety show. Peters was such a versatile and appealing performer that she fit right in to the long-gone format. Here she is on the best of the ’70s variety shows, “The Carol Burnett Show,” singing “All That Jazz” from March, 1975.

More proof that Peters is a superb comedienne, this comedy number by Marilyn Miller and Sheryl Hardwick from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”

All that wonderfully gooey ’70s cheesiness spilled over into the ’80s. Need proof? Look no further than Peters performing with Peter Allen at the 1982 Academy Awards in a tribute to Irving Berlin.

Peters is a two-time Tony Award winner (with seven nominations) and a force of musical theater nature. Here’s Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby” performed with John Williams and the Boston Pops.

This is one of my favorite Peters performances: “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan from an appearance on Carol Burnett’s “Carol and Company” in 1991.

My favorite Peters Broadway show is Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, in which she played Dot, muse to painter Georges Seurat (played by Mandy Patinkin). This is “Move On” from 1984.

Let’s end this musical melange with the Muppets and Peters singing “Just One Person” from a 1977 appearance on “The Muppet Show.”

SF Symphony soars through magnificent West Side Story

West Side Story 1
Cheyenne Jackson is Tony and Alexandra Silber is Maria, two star-crossed lovers surrounded by musical theater’s greatest music in the San Francisco Symphony’s season-ending concert of West Side Story conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Below: The company performs the Quintet near the end of Act 1. Photos by Stefan Cohen

It’s hard to imagine but it’s true: the music is so glorious you barely even miss the dancing. The San Francisco Symphony concludes its season with the first concert presentation of the full score for West Side Story, and it’s simply mind blowing. For the original 1957 production, composer Leonard Bernstein apparently made concessions in the orchestrations based on what was available to him at the Winter Garden Theatre. Then, when the chance came along to re-orchestrate for the movie in 1961, orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal (under Bernstein’s supervision) went big but perhaps too big. According to Symphony program notes, Bernstein then worried that the work had become “overblown and unsubtle.”

In 1984, Bernstein put together his dream West Side Story for a Deutsche Grammophon recording and finally got the orchestrations he wanted. That’s what we hear in this concert under the astute direction of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, a friend and admirer of Bernstein’s.

This concert does not preserve any of Jerome Robbins’ original direction or choreography, nor is there much of Arthur Laurent’s book. This is truly a concert concentrating on the score. While Bernstein utilized opera stars like José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa for his dream recording, Tilson Thomas wisely goes with more score- and story-appropriate Broadway voices.

West Side Story 2

This allows the focus to be squarely on Bernstein’s music. Even the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim seem less important when a fully symphony orchestra allows Bernstein’s music to jump, pop and soar so magnificently.

If it seemed like we were watching a recording session, well that’s not far off. Very little attention was paid to directorial flourishes like getting the actors and chorus members on and off the stage efficiently because all the attention was lavished on the music.

From the scintillating prologue to the tear-stained finale, Bernstein’s score has never sounded more vital, more full of brilliance and heart. The relationship between songs like “Maria” and “Somewhere” become even more pronounced as we hear them running as leitmotifs through the piece. And it’s such a pleasure to hear the delicate underscoring of some dramatic scenes, most especially the balcony scene between Tony (Cheyenne Jackson) and Maria (Alexandra Silber) when they profess their love for one another.

Jackson and Silber do an awful lot of kissing (will that come across on the recording?) in an effort to convey the instant and soul-deep connection between Tony and Maria. They do a marvelous job, and Silber especially, with a soaring soprano and a light touch, emerges as a real star. Jackson’s boyish charm carries “Something’s Coming” but his “Maria” is achingly beautiful.

The doomed couple’s improvised wedding, “One Hand, One Heart,” had special poignancy this week. Here are two people in love who want to get married with every cultural and social force around them telling them they are forbidden to do so. The resonance of that in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings involving same-sex marriage only added new depth and even more beauty to the scene.

Julia Bullock makes only one appearance, but it’s a powerful one. She sings a “Somewhere” that is not overstated (easy to do with this song) but captures the open-heart and hope amid oppressive darkness.

The show’s more comic numbers, “America” and “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” come off beautifully and don’t feel completely out of place as they sometimes can. Having Symphony Chorus members present to beef up the vocal sound is also pretty wonderful.

At only two hours, with the second act being much shorter than the first, you really feel the absence of the book in Act 2 when the tragedies descend. The music conveys a lot, and Tony’s death by gunshot is well handled, but the concert can only take the narrative so far.

Still, when the music is this a live, so full of rhythm and soul and breathtaking beauty, it’s hard to complain about anything. This San Francisco Symphony recording can’t come soon enough.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Cheyenne Jackson for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here. (subscription may be required)

The San Francisco Symphony presents West Side Story at 8 p.m. June 28 and 29 and July 2 and 2 p.m. June 30 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Tickets are $47-$160. Call 415- 864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

A new arts season, a free SF Symphony concert

Ah, the excitement of a new season. We may not have the dramatic foliage color changes here in San Francisco. We may not have the crisp fall air slowly pushing out the hot, dry summer air (it’s pretty much cold and foggy with intermittent sun here all the time). But we do have an exciting fall arts season, and it’s under way.

The season started a little earlier this year with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Aurora Theatre Company opening shows in the last week of August (the excellent Chinglish and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity respectively), then there was a wee break.

But this week, the new season starts with a vengeance. The acclaimed revival of The Normal Heart opens at American Conservatory Theater, Sharr White’s Broadway-bound The Other Place opens at the Magic Theatre and, because man and woman cannot live by theater alone, the San Francisco Symphony begins its 101st season with one of the highlights of the social set meets great art parties of the year: the opening gala.


For those lucky enough to attend Wednesday’s Symphony opening, the program includes Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, special guest violinist Joshua Bell (seen above, photo by Marc Hom) includes and selections from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, Chausson’s Poème and Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, both with Bell and the Orchestra, and Ravel’s Boléro. If that black-tie affair is a little too ambitious, not to worry.

On Friday, Sept. 21 at 5pm, Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony will perform the season’s first free outdoor concert at Justin Herman Plaza at the Embarcadero Center. Downtown workers, shoppers and music lovers are all invited to relax and enjoy an array of popular works at the waterfront plaza after work.

Visit www.sfsymphony.org for information about the San Francisco Symphony.

For more on shows at the Magic Theatre, ACT and Hamlet, the season-ending show at California Shakespeare Theater. Check back here at Theater Dogs regularly in the next few days.

Happy fall season!

SF Symphony scales Bluebeard’s Castle

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Michelle DeYoung plays Judith, Bluebeard’s new wife in the San Francisco Symphony production of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Below: Bluebeard director Nick Hillel. Photos courtesy of SF Symphony

There are seven locked rooms in Duke Bluebeard’s castle, and Nick Hillel knows what’s in each one. From blood to torture to tears, the contents of the rooms were originally devised in French folklore and then formalized by the writer Béla Balázs for his friend, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, for the short opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. But it was up to Hillel, who helms a London-based digital media company called Yeast Culture, to bring those mysterious chambers into the 21st century.

Hillel is the director of an acclaimed new production of Duke Bluebeard, which had its premiere last October with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. After a tour through Europe, the production comes to Davies Symphony Hall for three performances by the San Francisco Symphony.

As conceived by Hillel, who has worked with artists as diverse as the Beastie Boys and Cirque du Soleil, Davies is transformed by a stage-engulfing set that is 24 feet high onto which he projects all sorts of wild video projections (the seats behind the orchestra are not in use for this performance). And hovering over the orchestra itself is what Hillel calls “the sails,” a sculptural origami-like structure that also provides projections surfaces as it unfolds over the course of the hour-long opera.

“I wanted the sails to mirror the character Judith’s journey,” Hillel explains in the sunny Davies lobby before a rehearsal. “She has just arrived at the castle of Duke Bluebeard, her new husband, and she wants to know what’s behind all the locked doors. The deeper she goes, the more is revealed and the more we see.”

Nick Hillel

Bluebeard’s American premiere was with the New World Symphony in Miami under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, who also conducts the San Francisco performances. But the Miami performances did not include the full set and full complement of six projectors that will be part of the San Francisco run.

In conceiving the production, Hillel, who was a fan of the 1918 opera, knew he wanted to delve into the subtext of the story – a wife unlocking all her new husband’s secrets, even as he pleads with her to simply love him and let the secrets lie – without overwhelming the music.

“I love a challenge, and the challenge here was not to be too literal with the story and not to overwhelm the music or overcrowd it with ideas,” he says. “I know that I have tremendous power as a video artist, and that power can outweigh what is right. I can ruin the experience by directing attention with a color or an image when attention should be on the emotion of a singer or passage of music being played by a certain instrument. I wanted to do some delicate work here with lighting and images.”

In keeping with his notion of not taking things too literally, Hillel worked with his team – most of which traveled with him to San Francisco – to create images that, even if they weren’t literal or specific to the story, evoked just the right emotion. He’s even using the orchestra itself to help set the mood.

“You have this huge, beautiful orchestra on stage, so you have use it,” he says. “For instance, there’s a recurring ‘blood’ theme in the score, and depending on which part of the orchestra is playing it, we light the musicians in red. It helps with the storytelling and moves the recurring themes forward.”

Described as “semi-staged,” the production could be better described as “almost staged.” If the orchestra weren’t on stage, you’d still have two actors – mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Judith and bass-baritone Alan Held as Bluebeard – in costume and inhabiting the towering castle set and its ever-changing projections. Talk about your hybrid projects – here you have an opera performed with an on-stage symphony orchestra with a set designed for a venue that’s not used to housing sets. As Hillel says, he likes a challenge.

“We tend to piss off the opera purists,” Hillel says with a laugh. “Some of them just don’t like the use of video. Some say we use too much, some say we don’t use enough. Some people love it; some people hate it. You can’t please everybody. If everybody liked it, it would probably be middle-of-the-road, and what’s interesting about that?”

In keeping with the unusual, adventurous spirit of Bluebeard, the Symphony is planning some special events. Laura Stanfield Prichard gives a pre-show take an hour before each performance (free to all ticket holders). And on Friday, June 22, things get really interesting with Davies After Hours, a post-concert music event featuring the Magik*Magik Orchestra with special guest John Vanderslice performing their musical response to Bluebeard. The event will also feature artwork curated in partnership with the Crucible in Oakland. The event is free to June 22 ticket holders.

[bonus video]
Nick Hillel, director of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle discusses his concept for the production.

The San Francisco Symphony’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is at 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday (June 21, 22 and 23) at Davies Symphony Hall on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$145. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

On the radio: Streisand and Streep

Streisand Streep

I recently had the pleasure of sitting in the studio with Chloe Veltman, host of the KALW radio show “Voicebox.” Our topic of the evening was singing actresses. More specifically, we discussed the staggering talents of Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep, both of whom apply their prodigious acting skills to some marvelous song performances. Of course Streisand is as well known as a singer as she is an actress, but Streep is full of wonderful surprises as a singer.

Ann Hampton Callaway - Bill Westmoreland photoJoining us on the phone from New York for the show was the remarkably eloquent Ann Hampton Callaway (seen at right; photo by Bill Westmoreland), a singer and songwriter of note who also happens to have penned some tunes for Streisand (including the beautiful song “I’ve Dreamed of You,” which Streisand sang at her wedding to James Brolin).

Callaway brings her show of songs from the Streisand songbook to the San Francisco Symphony’s “Summer and the Symphony” season on Tuesday, July 3. Tickets are $15-$80 and available at www.sfsymphony.org or 415-864-6000.

There are several ways to listen to the “Voicebox” show called “Barbra & Meryl.” You can visit the “Voicebox” media page (click here) and scroll down to the “Listen Now” box on the bottom right. Click on “Barbra & Meryl.”
Or you can download the show for free as a podcast on iTunes. Just search for “Voicebox.” (or click here)

[bonus videos]

Here’s my favorite Meryl Streep vocal performance. It’s Shel Silverstein’s “I’m Checkin’ Out” from Postcards from the Edge.

Now here’s the song Ann Hampton Callaway wrote for Barbra Streisand’s wedding to James Brolin (the performance is from the 2000 Timeless tour; the Spanish subtitles are a bonus). The Callaway lyrics are set to a melody by Rolf Lovland.

Bernadette Peters’ music man: Marvin Laird

Behind every great diva there’s a hard-working, often brilliant musical director.

For Bernadette Peters, that man is Marvin Laird. The two first worked together in 1961. He was the assistant conductor and she was a Hollywood Blonde in a national touring production of Gypsy.

Marvin Laird 3

“Bernadette was clearly the one on stage with talent,” Laird says on the phone from his home in rural Connecticut. “I didn’t stay with the whole tour, but I knew our paths would cross again. You know when you meet certain people. We worked together again in New York when Bernadette auditioned to replace Kay Cole in Best Foot Forward. Then she got Dames at Sea, which necessitated a lot of TV stuff for her, so we started seeing each other a lot.”

Long story short: Laird, who moved from Broadway into the endlessly fascinating world of 1970s variety television, helped Peters craft a nightclub act, and they’ve been an inseparable duo ever since.

Laird will be conducting for Peters when she plays with the San Francisco Symphony on June 27 at Davies Symphony Hall.

Peters and Laird recently returned from a triumphant concert appearance in Adelaide, Australia, which was filmed. “Richard Jay Alexander spearheaded the filming, and he said the footage is just breathtaking, which is pretty exciting.”

Laird says he’s excited about coming back to San Francisco, where he and Peters have performed many a summer concert.

Marvin Laird 2

“Anyplace with a large gay community, they just know their stuff,” Laird says. “There’s nothing quite as wonderful as an informed audience who loves the artist. Bernadette is a special person and is one of those rare people who knows how to take care of herself. She will have the same instrument, like Barbara Cook, when she’s singing in her 80s. Bernadette also knows how important her fan base is. She takes the time to talk to everyone and spends an hour and a half with her fans at the end of a show. That’s who she is. She grew up appreciating family and knows the value of human relationships.”

Laird grew up in Kansas and ended up in New York working on such shows as Ben Franklin in Paris, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Happy Time, Skyscraper and Georgy. When he was out of town in Los Angeles working on The Happy Time (the first musical to ever play the Ahmanson Theatre), he contracted hepatitis. “Gower Champion had worked us all into a thin nubbin. I was a wreck,” Laird says. During his three-week stint in the hospital, Laird received a visit from Michael Kidd, who recruited Laird to write dance music for his current project, the movie version of Hello, Dolly! From there, it was a simple leap into variety television.

“I was working on maybe two and three different specials at a time,” Laird recalls. “I was driving from one studio to another, flying over those hills from NBC to CBS. We never thought those specials would be extinct. Now I curse myself I didn’t save copies of all those shows. If I run back through my mind, I can’t think of one performer who wasn’t doing TV. I worked with Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Bob Hope – all on the same special! It was an amazing period of time. If only people could be exposed to the level of professionalism and creativity that happened in those days. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be a resurgence of variety television. Or at the very least, the specials should be shown again.”

Laird also began working with performers on their nightclub acts. He worked so often with Juliet Prowse in Las Vegas he ended up owning a home there. And while working with Shirley MacLaine on her special “Where Do We Go from Here,” one of the guests caught his eye: Joel Paley, a member of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. The two have been together since and celebrate their 33-year anniversary this fall. Their partnership is also creative. They wrote the show Ruthless! The Musical, a gut-busting spoof of The Bad Seed, and are at work on a new project.

“We’re not quite happy with the show yet,” Laird says. “It was inspired by an aspect of Joel’s growing up. His mother choreographed and staged the Temple shows in northeast Philadelphia. It’s a whole culture that deals with the synagogue shows put on every year. It’s a celebration of a certain aspect of Jewish life.”

So far, titles for the show have included The Yiddish Are Coming, The Yiddish Are Coming, Shofar So Good and Kosher Nostra.

“The show played an entire summer in Denver, but we’re still in the process of getting it right,” Laird says. “It has some great songs, but it’s about what goes on in between the songs that’s hard.”

Laird and Peters will be heading into the recording studio in the near future to make a Christmas album, so they’re in the process of collecting songs “that haven’t been done to death.”

“Bernadette works from the inside out,” Laird says. “She can’t get into a song unless she relates to it completely for one reason or another. She can work with a number for years before she puts it into a show. That’s a long gestation period. She doesn’t just whip ’em off. I’m so used to Bernadette’s pace that to work any faster seems strange to me.”

As an accompanist and musical director, Laird says his job is to surround the choice of song with whatever special qualities you might bring to the job.

“It’s such a pleasure with Bernadette,” Laird says. “The mutual respect is there. Now, with so many years together, we sort of breathe together. It’s a very special relationship that happens between an artist and the accompanying performer. It’s a delicate thing. I’m just thrilled I’ve had as much of my career as I have with someone as sensitive and as generous as Bernadette. It works both ways: she inspires me as much as I inspire her.”


Bernadette Peters in Concert, 8 p.m., Saturday, June 27, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$90. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org for information.


Mazzie and Danieley toast New Year with SF Symphony

Broadway’s first couple, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, had a pretty good 2008.

He had a long run in the final Kander and Ebb musical, Curtains, and she was the Lady of the Lake in Monty Python’s Spamalot. They also criss-crossed the country doing concerts together, and he recently released his album Jason Danieley and the Frontier Heroes.

The big news this year, though, according to Mazzie: “We bought a country house!”

The couple, which now splits time between Manhattan and the new country home in the Berkshires, will end the year in San Francisco with a pair of New Year’s concerts with the San Francisco Symphony – one New Year’s Eve and one New Year’s Day.

Mazzie and Danieley head into the New Year with projects aplenty, even though Broadway seems to be dimming because of the disastrous economy.

They’ll tour Florida with the Boston Pops Orchestra, perform the Kennedy Center in February and they’ll do a joint gig at Feinstein’s in March. So far, though, no Broadway shows lined up.

“In this economy, shows’ advances are not good and producers are cutting their losses and gearing up for, hopefully, a spring season that will bring some stuff in,” Mazzie says. “I have such great confidence in our new president. I’m beyond joyous about that. I know it’s going to be tough going with this economy, but he’ll be able to turn it around and it will affect everybody. It’s all cyclical. People are still going to go see hit shows. People still want entertainment. I know Broadway is going to suffer, but I’m not all doom and gloom.”

Danieley adds that in a recession, people still value entertainment.

“They just find less expensive forms of entertainment,” he says. “They want to get away from CNN and MSNBC and experience some Gershwin or something of substance. This country went through a depression, and look what the music of that time did for them. It put salve on the wounds of economic scraped knees.”

In their concerts with the SF Symphony, Mazzie and Danieley will perform material from their CD, Opposite You, which is a mix of standards and show tunes. He’ll debut a new arrangement of one of is songs from “Curtains,” “I Miss the Music,” and she’ll incorporate some tunes from her cabaret show, Yes! It’s Today! a revue of songs by Jerry Herman and Kander and Ebb.

Ask the couple what they listen to at home, and you get a steady stream of overlapping names: k.d. lang, Annie Lennox, Shawn Colvin, Alison Krauss, Bonnie Raitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Rufus Wainwright and James Taylor.

“What I love about Rufus,” Danieley says, “is that he combines his own compositions with covers and standards and makes them his own. In that similar style, we like to approach music we love, take in all that’s going on with the sound of music today, and kind of brush them off and make them a little more contemporary, a little more vital.”

That’s certainly what Danieley has done with his album, Jason Danieley and the Frontier Heroes, a collection of country, folk, Americana sounds that borrow heavily from his childhood in St. Louis, where he played music with his family in their basement.

“My grandma played piano, my mom played the organ, my grandpa played washtub bass,” Danieley says. “We really had a back porch Americana sound. These are my roots and I just really wanted to share this music.”

The album is dedicated to Danieley’s grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. In her memory, 20 percent of the profit from each CD goes to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Making music, whether it’s from Broadway, pop, the past or the present, never ceases to enthrall Mazzie and Danieley, even though they’ve been doing it for many years – the last 10 as man and wife.

“I love that wherever you listen to music, whether in a symphony hall or at the Blue Note listening to Jane Monheit, the people in the room are having these experiences that get their creative juices flowing and sends them out into the world with a changed outlook. That’s what I love about live performance – it’s a shared experience, and this thing that is created – music – is something we all fee. It is a gift to be part of it.”


The San Francisco Symphony’s New Year’s Eve Gala featuring Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley is at 9 p.m. Dec. 31 at Davies Symphony Hall. Event includes party favors, complimentary champagne, savories and desserts following the concert as well as dancing in the lobby and a midnight cascade of balloons. Tickets are $110-$180.

The New Year’s Day Cabaret Concert is at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20-$90

Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

Bravo Bernstein! San Francisco celebrates Lenny

The great American composer Leonard Bernstein would have been 90 this year, and the man who gave us the memorable music for West Side Story, Candide and other Broadway shows, among all his other symphonic work, is being celebrated in style.

The San Francisco Symphony leads the celebration with Michael Tilson Thomas, a longtime friend and colleague of the late composer, conducting an all-Bernstein program Sept. 17-19. The program includes some of his show music — West Side Story, Trouble in Tahiti, Fancy Free and On the Town – as well as Meditation No. 1 from Mass, scenes from A Quiet Place and “To What You Said” from Songfest.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw, baritone Quinn Kelsey and cellist Peter Wyrick are the soloists. Tilson Thomas, Upshaw and the Symphony will perform the same program on Sept. 24 to open Carnegie Hall’s 2008-09 season.

The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco is also part of the Bernstein celebration with a screening of the PBS documentary Reaching for the Note, which delves into Bernstein’s musical and personal life. The screening is free at 7 p.m. Nov. 20 but reservations are required.

At 8 p.m. Dec. 4, pianist Jeffrey Siegel offers The Anniversaire Pieces, Bernstein’s musical tributes written for friends, family and fellow composers, as well as Meditation on a Wedding and El Salon Mexico.

Cantor Roslyn Barak presents Lenny’s Voice: Bernstein’s Humor and Jewish Spirit at 7 p.m. Dec. 4.

Also in the series is JCCSF’s benefit event: 100% Michael Feinstein – Bernstein and Friends on Nov. 23 with cocktails at 5 p.m. and the concert at 7 p.m. when Feinstein reprises his Carnegie Hall tribute to his friend and mentor.

Recalling his friend, Tilson Thomas recently told an interviewer: “If Leonard Bernstein were here right now and asked to comment on his 90th birthday, I know he would say, `I didn’t compose enough.’ He was so busy being an entertainer and educator that he lost years and years of time. Now we wish, along with him, that he had written more. He was interested in so many different musical genres. In this program we’re doing in honor of what would have been his 90th birthday, we are going to try and celebrate the range of his musical interests. So there will be some of the most familiar music from some of the great shows and ballets, but also some really challenging pieces that come from his last opera, A Quiet Place, as well as a kind of gala show of music—some of the most mournful, some of the most irreverent, some of the most blithely innocent, some of the most self-consciously tortured: the whole range of the possibility of his music to amuse, to delight, to provoke, to question.”

And thinking about the Bernstein legacy, Tilson Thomas said: “Bernstein continues to have a great influence on all the people he taught and trained and influenced. Over the course of time, it may be that the language of his music will become more remote from audiences, but I think there will still be a certain kind of heart inside of it that will always be recognized as symbolizing a particular period in the United States, when people were very confident and very generous. To me, he represents someone from the generation of young victors of the Second World War—who, looking out at the world from the United States, which was pretty much in an all-triumphant position, still had such an interest in celebrating the cultural tradition of other nations: the great European traditions, the South American traditions, Asian traditions. Bernstein was already in that place long before it was as politically fashionable and correct as it is now. He had a courageous and generous spirit, and I think such spirits make a difference.”

The San Francisco Symphony performs its all-Bernstein program Sept. 17-19 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$130. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org

For information about the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s Bernstein events, call 415-292-9933 or visit www.jccsf.org.

Now here’s four minutes of heaven as Bernstein conducts the overture from Candide:

Broadway baby Peters can still be a blast

Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, Bernadette Peters was in a good mood. Her voice was in great shape (and her shape was in GREAT shape).

In other words, Peters’ “Summer in the City” concert was a triumph.

Last time Peters was in town, she was performing a theatrical concert at the Orpheum Theatre to promote her new Rodgers and Hammerstein album. That 2001 run got scotched by illness (she says Rita Moreno gave her the flu at a Jerry Herman tribute), and she hasn’t been back since.

Friday night, she stood in front of the San Francisco Symphony, with her longtime musical director Marvin Laird at the conductor’s podium (and, quite often, at the piano), and delivered the kind of old-school Broadway razzle dazzle that has made her a beloved musical theater icon.

If you’ve seen Peters in a show, especially a long-running one, you know that she can get tired and bored, and she can let her weariness come through in the performance so that it seems she’s giving it about 50 percent. In her many appearances with the SF Symphony – 1991, 92, 95 and 98 – Peters has been hot and lukewarm. She trotted out a lot of the same songs, jokes and mannerisms, concert after concert.

This time around we saw a much fresher Peters. At 60 she has lost none of her Kewpie Doll looks – That hair! Those curves! – nor has her voice, one of the most bizarre instruments on Broadway, lost any of its appeal. I say her voice is bizarre because it is. The break between chest and head voice comes at a strange place, and her control is not always there. Sometimes the drama in her performance comes from wondering whether she can actually hit the note.

That said, Peters has learned to use her odd voice incredibly well. She has comedy notes and break-your-heart notes. She’s a smart interpreter, and as she has gotten older, she has learned simplicity can be equally as effective as the most involved vocal manipulation. That’s one of the reasons she’s so good at singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim, who was well represented in Friday’s song selection.

After an orchestral program conducted by Edwin Outwater that featured Broadway composers Sondheim, Bernstein, Gould and Styne (no mention need be made of the attempt to make the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” into orchestral rockabilly), Laird led the orchestra through an overture that plucked out highlights from Peters’ career (Gypsy, Mack and Mable, Sunday in the Park with George).

Peters entered singing a cutesy “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy and then got serious with “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, a song she sings just about better than anyone, and the simple arrangement for piano and cello was stunning.

Aside from a go-nowhere running joke about trying to sell a vacation home in Florida (five bedrooms, six baths, one pool), Peters was charming. She did do her “this is my back” joke when she turned to sip water, but mostly she connected with the adoring audience as she strutted through her vampy “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and then climbed on top of the piano for a hot – truly hot – “Fever.”

She headed back to Rodgers and Hammerstein for “Mr. Snow” from Carousel and “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (she says she’s seen the current revival twice and that we should catch it if we can) and then surprised us with a delicate “Shenandoah” that was practically a cappella. A recent gig at L.A.’s Disney Concert Hall forced her to add some Disney to the act: a lovely medley of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”

The Sondheim section of the evening started on the Davies grand organ in a riff from Sweeney Todd that turned into a beautiful “Johanna.”

Peters sings “Not a Day Goes By” all the time, but Friday night’s version seemed somehow less acted and more natural, which made the song all the more heartbreaking. Her “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is fun (not as fun as Andrea McArdle’s), but her “With So Little to Be Sure Of” brought weight and drama and beauty (more than the set closer “Being Alive,” which didn’t have quite the oomph it should have).

For an encore, she performed her first composition, “Kramer’s Song,” a lullaby she wrote for her dog and that accompanies her recently published children’s book Broadway Barks. Peters walked into the audience to perform the song, which is truly lovely and emotional and has more than a touch of Sondheim in it.

Of course Peters could have performed more songs from her own shows. She didn’t do anything from Song and Dance or Annie Get Your Gun or anything of note from Gypsy. But it was nice getting a mostly fresh plate of show tunes from such a delightful diva.

Visit Peters’ official site: bernadettepeters.com


Books, `Barks’ and Bernadette

Bernadette Peters’ career is going to the dogs.

No, the two-time Tony Award-winning Broadway diva has not hit the skids. She’s just more interested in dogs at the moment than the stage.

Peters, 57, who performs with the San Francisco Symphony Friday, July 25, as part of the “Summer in the City” series, has been a self-described “dog person” since age 9 when she begged her mother for a canine companion. Then she got Suzie, a small golden lab, who became a beloved family pet.

“My father, who delivered bread, was a man who didn’t talk about his emotions, but when that dog got old and wandered away to die, he took it so personally. `I never thought she’d do this to us,’ he said,” Peters recalls on the phone from her New York home. “We did get another dog, a little poodle, and he carried that animal around under his arm. He was sort of a dog whisperer, which helped when he made deliveries.”

Throughout her life, Peters has had dogs.

“I didn’t know at first you had to actually be in charge, be the alpha,” she says. “I’m good with dogs now. I understand that.”

Years ago she had a poodle named Rocco, a dog she claims was the smartest dog ever.

“I took him on `The Tonight Show’ because there was a guy there rating animal intelligence,” Peters recalls. “Contrary to what people think, poodles are not that smart, he said. Ha ha ha. My dog won. When I was in the movie The Jerk, we had trained dogs, and the trainer, to get them to speak, would use a signal. Sometimes they’d speak, sometimes they wouldn’t. I’d watch them and think, `Rocco could do that.’ I remember telling my father that Rocco was so smart – he was like a little boy in a dog suit. My father came to visit and said, `You’re right!’ I was in such mourning when Rocco died. It was just him and me for so long.”

About 11 years ago, after her golden retriever had died, she found Kramer at the ASPCA. “He’s a Heinz 57 mutt,” Peters says. “He’s a tramp, like in `Lady and the Tramp.’ I should sing that song.”

She’ll probably get around to it, but for now she’s singing “Kramer’s Song,” a song she composed herself to accompany her first-ever children’s book, Broadway Barks (Blue Apple Books) named for the annual Broadway animal-adoption event she and Mary Tyler Moore founded a decade ago.

Peters will be singing “Kramer’s Song,” a tender lullaby that accompanies the book on a CD tucked into the back cover, in concert, and on Saturday, July 26, she’ll do a book signing at Books Inc. on Market Street.

“I had never composed anything before, and at first I didn’t want to sing the song because I wondered if it was good enough,” Peters says. “But then I got comfortable with it because I know it comes from someplace real.”

Her friend Stephen Sondheim, whose songs she sings just about better than anyone, hasn’t heard the song yet. “But he wasn’t surprised when he heard I’d written something,” Peters says. “He says the way to write a song is for it to come out of a situation.”

In addition to discussing her next stage project, Peters is at work on a second children’s book – this one about her pit bull, Stella. As for the real life Kramer, he’s enjoying his moment in the spotlight.

“He loves his song,” Peters says. “It makes him bark. He’s loving being on TV, loves the applause. I think he was an actor in his last life.”

The success of Broadway Barks, the annual New York event that involves the cream of the Broadway theater community, didn’t surprise Peters.

“When you’re an actor, your heart has to be open and available to feelings and emotions,” she says. “Actors are usually very sensitive people, and they fit perfectly with animals. Communication with animals is very good for us – they help us find the quiet in ourselves.”

Peters’ primary causes these days involve animals. She’s working to turn New York into a no-kill island when it comes to abandoned animals, and she’s working to increase funding for groups that spay and neuter animals in cities.

Of course, she’s still very much involved in show business. In addition to her concert work, she’s planning her next album – something she describes as “a small album of standards.” And she’s in meetings about her next stage project. “There’s nothing to talk about yet,” she says.

She recently finished work on a Lifetime movie called Living Proof that costars Harry Connick Jr. and will air in October. She’s also working on another children’s book, this one about her pit bull, Stella.

“People have the wrong idea about pit bulls – they’re so loving. That’s what I want to write about – about how appearances aren’t everything,” Peters says. “I may try to write a song for her, but I’m not ready to get `Kramer’s Song’ out of my consciousness yet.”

Bernadette Peters performs with the San Francisco Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$35. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

Peters will sign copies of her book, Broadway Barks, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Books Inc., 2275 Market St., San Francisco. Call 415-864-6777 for information.

Here’s Peters performing “Kramer’s Song” on “The View.”