A Lot of Trouble for Trouble in Tahiti, and It Was Worth It: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Works Wonders With Bernstein’s Opera

Bringing a little known work to a wider audience

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. (Photo by Larry Fink)

“We really don’t want to be jerks,” Jamie Bernstein told The Observer recently. “Who wants to be a jerk?”

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Ms. Bernstein was sitting at the dining room table of her Chelsea apartment, talking about the legacy of her father, Leonard Bernstein. It’s that legacy that she doesn’t want to be a jerk about.

Along with her sister and brother and the small staff and board of the Leonard Bernstein Office Inc., Ms. Bernstein is in charge of overseeing the future of Lenny. This intimate group is the gatekeeper for all things Bernstein, giving the final approval for new productions, adaptations and arrangements.

It was to this group that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra appealed a couple of years ago. The ensemble was beginning to conceptualize an all-American concert featuring Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” Suite and Chris Thile’s Mandolin Concerto. (The concert takes place this Saturday at Carnegie Hall.) The consensus was that Bernstein would make a great complement, but he wrote next to nothing for chamber orchestra.

One of Orpheus’s artistic directors, the violinist Ronnie Bauch, had an idea. In the late 1970s Mr. Bauch had played in a performance of Bernstein’s savagely peppy 1952 one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, at the Whitney Museum. Why not create an orchestral suite out of the irresistibly tuneful work, as Bernstein himself had done with the dazzling “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story”?

Mr. Bauch approached Paul Chihara, a composer and experienced arranger who had worked with Orpheus before. Early in his career Mr. Chihara had also studied under Bernstein at the Tanglewood Festival, so he seemed like a natural fit to extract a suite out of Trouble in Tahiti.

“It’s never been one of my favorite theatrical works because the story is so depressing,” Mr. Chihara admitted when we spoke at the café at Riverside Church, where Orpheus was rehearsing. But he is devoted to the score, and teared up as he described a particularly emotional passage.

“You can’t touch Bernstein without the Bernstein Office,” he said. “That ain’t easy, and it took a long time. They didn’t respond. Orpheus wrote the letter, and for the longest time we didn’t hear. And I thought, ‘Oh, they’re looking me over.’”

Mr. Chihara had been introduced to Jamie Bernstein through the composer William Bolcom, and she was supportive of the idea, but others on the staff and board had initial reservations.

“There was some discussion about it, because not everybody was sure it was a great idea, or necessary,” Ms. Bernstein said. “You know, it’s not an automatic ‘yes’ that you would extract orchestral music from a piece that is so vocal. No one had heard of Paul Chihara and it all sounded kind of odd, but eventually everyone got used to the idea and found that he was a stand-up guy and knew what he was doing.”

The process of getting this kind of approval through artists’ estates trusts and the like has gotten renewed attention with the controversial new Broadway production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The production overhauled the work, particularly its sound, in an attempt to make it work as musical theater rather than opera. (A musical, it goes without saying, can make a lot more money for an artist’s descendants than an opera can.)

Similar issues were raised by the recent Broadway revival of West Side Story, which translated some of the dialogue into Spanish. The approval for the production had to work its long, winding way not just through the Bernstein Office, but through all the other collaborators’ estates as well.

“I had my reservations here and there,” Jamie Bernstein said about the West Side revival. “But overall I thought they did a pretty good job. The good news is that it finally happened, and now it’s on tour.”

That points to perhaps the most pressing concern for an artist’s heirs: that works continue to remain in the public eye. West Side Story is done all the time in high schools, but major Broadway revivals—and the professional tours that follow—matter in keeping something culturally central. But what form should those revivals take? As with the Trouble in Tahiti suite, how much adaptation is too much adaptation? What exactly is the “legacy” that an artist’s heirs are supposed to preserve? What should Jamie Bernstein say yes and no to?

A Lot of Trouble for Trouble in Tahiti, and It Was Worth It: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Works Wonders With Bernstein’s Opera