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The art of Leonard Bernstein

The name Leonard Bernstein evokes warm memories of "West Side Story," "Candide" and "Wonderful Town." "The more you look at the art of Bernstein, the more you can appreciate what he did as a composer," says Lynn Sjolund, director of Rogue Valley Chorale. "He had a knack for cutting through the junk and getting to what the music is all about."

Bernstein combined roles of conductor, composer and music advocate to become one of the most successful musicians in America. He blended elements of jazz, musical theater and the work of older composers, such as Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and George Gershwin. Some of his works, especially his score for "West Side Story," bridged the gap between classical and popular music.

The Rogue Valley Chorale will celebrate the best of Bernstein with concerts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12, and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 13, at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford.

The Chorale's program will feature only a small part of Bernstein's oeuvre. He was a prolific composer of operas, symphonic works and solos for vocalists and instrumentalists.

"The big work that we're doing is 'Mass,' " says Sjolund. "But we're doing an abbreviated version of it."

"Mass" is Bernstein's most ambitious work. It's a musical and theatrical experience that includes dancers, singers, a male youth choir, rock and blues singers, actors, two orchestras and a marching band. Bernstein commissioned 23-year-old writer Stephen Schwartz to write lyrics for "Mass." Once again, he reached beyond the world of classical music to collaborate on a piece — just as he did with "West Side Story."

"Mass" was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1971. The composition was based on the Tridentine Mass of the Roman Catholic Church.

Rogue Valley Chorale will use small chorale groups to present parts of "Mass." The first part of the piece features a vocal solo by soprano Erin McKibben. Joining McKibben will be the choir's women, singing an entirely different-sounding vocal arrangement, says Sjolund.

"The thing about Bernstein's music is that he loved to use different meters or rhythms," says Sjolund. "He would switch them within a single composition ... or a single line. He would combine different pieces. It's quite complex."

The Chorale will be accompanied by pianist Andrea Brock and percussionist Teresa McCoy.

"They're amazing," says Sjolund. "They're able to interpret Bernstein's complicated compositions without any problems."

"Mass" will be followed by selections from "Candide," including "Make Our Garden Grow" and "The Best of All Possible Worlds." Tunes from "Wonderful Town," "On the Town" and "West Side Story" also are set for the concert.

"Bernstein could write beautiful melodies, such as 'One Hand, One Heart' from 'West Side Story,' " says Sjolund. "Then he could turn around and write something utterly satirical, such as 'Candide.' "

Tickets to the shows at the Craterian Theater cost $20, $5 for students. Tickets are available at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., Medford; online at www.craterian.org; or by calling 541-779-3000.

Lynn Sjolund, director of The Rogue Valley Chorale. - Photo by David Gibb