Fort Worth — Although we associate the name “Cliburn” with all things piano, the Cliburn Concerts series doesn’t solely feature that instrument. On Thursday evening, for instance, The Cliburn at the Kimbell hosted mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard—OK, yes, and her collaborative pianist John Arida in the Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Museum of Art in Fort Worth.
Leonard has an outstanding résumé, having sung with opera companies from Fort Worth to Santa Fe, Paris to the Met, as well as with an impressive array of orchestras. It was easy to see why, as soon as she opened her mouth to sing. Throughout her almost two-hour recital, Leonard displayed an agile, versatile voice, graceful physical beauty, and charisma in her spoken remarks that make an evening with her a treat. She has a wide vibrato in her upper register, but the warmth and richness of her lower and middle registers more than compensate.
Leonard and Arida performed an all-Bernstein program (Leonard singing Leonard, get it?), divided into four groupings: “Lenny on Love,” “Bernstein for Kids (of All Ages),” “Bernstein in My Mind,” and “Lenny & Leonard Say Goodbye.” These groupings each included a mix of the oh-so-familiar (“I Feel Pretty”) and the more obscure (“My Twelve Tone Melody,” “What A Movie!” from Trouble in Tahiti).
Leonard is at home in Bernstein’s full range of styles, from his musical theater repertoire to more serious fare. Two songs from Peter Pan, “My House” and the poignant “Peter, Peter” and one from Candide, “It Must Be So,” are reminders that these productions are worth a revisit. Others, such as the three tunes from West Side Story, are almost too familiar—indeed, Leonard’s second encore was a sing-along rendition of “Somewhere,” and I was far from the only audience member who effortlessly recalled all the lyrics.
The tear-jerkers of the evening were the two songs with political overtones—Bernstein’s 1968 Vietnam protest song, “So Pretty,” is sung from the perspective of a child confused about the killing of people with “Shining smiles and shiny eyes and hair”; “Then I had to ask my teacher why/ War was making all those people die./ They’re so pretty.” Although “Take Care of This House” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue might not be overtly political, its admonition to “care for this house” and “Be careful at night/ Check all the doors/ If someone makes off with a dream/ The dream will be yours” seems timely, at least.
But not all of Leonard and Arida’s selections were from musical theater, such as Bernstein’s setting of Walt Whitman’s “To What You Said.” Some listeners regard this song, as well as Whitman’s original poem, as an exploration of homosexual love. Perhaps so, though in any case Whitman—and Bernstein—reject convention: “Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious/ Behold the received models of the parlors—What are they to me?” Setting Whitman’s notoriously long lines and irregular scansion to music is a tricky business—the lines above have 13 and 16 syllables, respectively. But Bernstein is masterful in his craft, and Leonard sung each line with real naturalness. The long piano introduction was an opportunity to hear Arida’s skill, as well—he is an extraordinary collaborator, but left, however briefly, to his own devices he showed refinement and grace.
We don’t often get vocalists of this caliber in recital in the Metroplex—Leonard is a singer I would happily hear again, either on her own or on the opera stage.