If there’s one thing that distinguishes the Leonard Bearstein Symphony Orchestra from any other musical group it’s their endurance. They play 45-minute sets, precisely on the hour, from 10 a.m.-8 p.m., every day in Founders Hall through Dec. 26. (Check the website for exceptions.)
During their 15-minute breaks, the conductor, Leonard Bearstein (“But you may call me ‘Maestro’”), does not sit down. Nobody takes a bathroom break. The string players do not lower their bow arms. Nobody even blinks.
And then they start again.
The Maestro’s conducting style is unconventional. He begins conducting every song facing the audience before swiveling to face his musicians, who have no problem following his lead.
The animatronic orchestra includes three vocalists, Ella and Bubbles (known as the Cub Sisters) and Bentley.
A double bassist, two cellists and three violinists (perhaps one played viola; they didn’t answer my questions between sets) are the string section.
The orchestra benefits from the addition of several musicians with jazz backgrounds. William “Wild Bill” wowed the room with his trumpet solo on “Jingle Bell Rock,” and another high mark was Hodges’ sax solo on “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Hodges is the most animated of the musicians. He’s so immersed in the music that he can scarcely stand in place.
The drummer, Gene, also comes from the jazz world. His work with the Leonard Bearstein Symphony Orchestra is, perhaps, a little too restrained, but you can tell he’s a jazz guy because he wears a beret and a sparkly red jacket.
The string section is not as extraordinary as the brass and woodwind players. They get the job done in workmanlike fashion, but they are hampered by their lack of fingers. Their left hands do not move on the strings.
Considering the limitations of their anatomy, the string players do an impressive job. At times it almost seems like we’re hearing music that they’re not even playing. The same can be said for the percussionists who flank drummer Gene. During “Sleigh Ride” we hear sleigh bells, even though there are no sleigh bells on stage. It’s said that the best musicians make it look effortless and that’s certainly the case with this orchestra.
I avoid the front row at concerts because eye contact with the musicians makes me uncomfortable. Not the case here. The bears’ detached professionalism put me at ease, and also, there was no spitting by the singers.
Bentley, one of the vocalists, lacked the professionalism of the other musicians. He often seemed to fall asleep on stage, and he assumed a Chipmunk-like voice for a little while, for no apparent reason. Also, the Maestro came close to losing control of his personnel when the singers begged to repeat a favorite song. (Don’t worry. He was not swayed.)
The orchestra proved to be surprisingly agile when the singers surprised the Maestro with the sultry “Santa Baby.” Neither the conductor nor the instrumentalists had any problem jumping in.
The orchestra would not take requests or play an encore, but that should not detract from their substantial accomplishments. We can all learn from these bears. If they can put on their tuxedos and perform for almost eight hours a day without the benefit of fingers, is there anything we can’t do? No excuses.
Photos: Jody Mace