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‘Candide’ has become a cult favorite

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Andrew Stenson sings the title role in San Francisco Symphony’s concert of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” (Courtesy Dario Acosta)

Patrons anticipating upcoming San Francisco Symphony concerts of “Candide” and expecting a novel experience may be pleasantly surprised upon hearing some familiar music.

Leonard Bernstein (and various lyricists) enriched Voltaire’s 1759 wild satire about the misfortunes of a simple-minded, incurable optimist with such often-heard songs as “Make Our Garden Grow,” “Glitter and Be Gay,” “I Am Easily Assimilated,” “Life is Happiness Indeed,” “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and “Dear Boy.”

On Jan. 18-21, San Francisco Symphony, celebrating the Bernstein centennial, presents a 1988 Scottish Opera concert version of the work (which has been called both a musical and an operetta) led by the American composer-conductor’s longtime protégé and associate, Michael Tilson Thomas.

The tale follows the wide-eyed hero Candide, whose trips to distant points of the globe invariably turn into dismal misadventures, much though he may be assured by his idealistic tutor Doctor Pangloss that everything is for the best.

The satire, which explores human folly, social justice, religion and politics, was a timely topic for Bernstein and Lillian Hellman, his initial collaborator, during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. In a public talk about the work in 1989, more than 30 years after the show’s initial flop on Broadway in 1956, Bernstein said, “There seems to be far too much deliberate evil on the part of us human beings for anyone to believe that this can be the best of all possible worlds.”

“Candide” has a complex and illustrious creation story. There have been many versions — and people working on it –since its original composition between 1954 and 1956.

Bernstein composed all of the music and some lyrics; Hellman, Stephen Sondheim (who was writing lyrics for “West Side Story” while Bernstein was composing it around the same time as “Candide”), Hugh Wheeler, Dorothy Parker and others worked on lyrics and text at other various points.

Michael Tilson Thomas, left, pictured with Leonard Bernstein in 1983, leads a concert of the composer’s comic “Candide,” based on the novella by Voltaire.
[Courtesy Robert Millard]

The widely appreciated music is among Bernstein’s most varied and melodic, with syncopated takes on gavotte, mazurka, polka, even tango. In addition to the usual strings, woodwinds and brass, the orchestration includes xylophone, triangle, glockenspiel, tambourine, gong, ratchet, whip, woodblocks, cowbell, maracas, gourds, bongos, castanets and chimes.

In the San Francisco Symphony concerts, tenor Andrew Stenson sings the title role; soprano Meghan Picerno sings the part of Cunégonde, his endlessly suffering sweetheart. Soprano Sheri Greenawald is the Old Lady, Hadleigh Adams is Maximillian, and baritone Michael Todd Simpson multitasks as the Narrator, Voltaire, Pangloss, Martin and Cacambo.

Members of the San Francisco Symphony chorus, led by Ragnar Bohlin, also appear.

Special programming includes pre-concert presentations (one hour before each concert) by the composer’s offspring, with piano accompaniment by Peter Grunberg. Alexander Bernstein appears Jan. 18-19; Nina Bernstein speaks Jan. 20-21.

IF YOU GO
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide
Presented by San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 18-20; 2 p.m. Jan. 21
Tickets: $35 to $159
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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