Chafetz to lead CSO in 2014’s final opera collaboration

When the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra last played a Pops Concert, guest conductor Stuart Chafetz took the Amphitheater on a trip to Africa.

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amp, he’s using those frequent flier miles to spirit the Chautauqua Opera Company on sojourn to San Juan, Puerto Rico, as they rendezvous with the CSO to highlight the work of Broadway legends Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

The program will be split down the middle, with the first half featuring the highlights of one composer and the second dedicated to the other.

Bernstein is most famous for composing the music of West Side Story along with the sounds of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the operetta Candide. Sondheim worked with Bernstein on the famous showdown between the Sharks and Jets as well as Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.

“This setup is perfect for the opera program,” said Chafetz, who also plays timpani in the CSO. “Bernstein and Sondheim are fundamental in the music world. You could call the show ‘The Best of Both Worlds.’ ”

The opera students are usually the featured performers for each season’s second Pops Concert, though the theme varies each year.

Tonight’s show marks the end of the season for the company after the conclusion of The Ballad of Baby Doe this past Monday.

With the works of Sondheim and Bernstein set to fill the Chautauqua air, Chafetz allows that tonight’s concert merits a special feeling, even for a veteran musician like himself.

“I get chills working on [Bernstein and Sondheim’s music],” he said. “I can’t wait to see it in action. West Side Story in particular is so complicated but so, so rewarding.”

When Chafetz takes to the podium tonight, he’ll be capping a whirlwind 10 days, which included a pair of guest appearances with the Houston Symphony Orchestra and one with the Buffalo Philharmonic last night.

His jetsetting schedule, combined with the ever-rushed rehearsal schedule of the CSO, means that it’ll be a sprint to the finish for all involved. His first glimpse of the opera students was during rehearsals on Wednesday.

“Putting this whole thing together with 70 people in one run-through is basically a minor miracle,” he said. “It’s really all about the singers, though. Watching [Opera Company Artistic/General Director] Jay Lesenger work with them on all the details — it’s amazing how they put it all together.”

For a self-described ham like Chafetz, it’s tough to cede the spotlight while onstage, but he promises to be “as low-key as I can be.”

Even so, the man once described as jollier than St. Nick knows that he’ll have to watch himself and make sure to kick off his dancing shoes before trotting the boards.

“Every show is different,” he said. “There’s an adjustment to what’s on the program, the dynamics and balance involved, everything is always nudged a little here and there. This is a different type of conducting, though. I’m there to be a vehicle for the persona of the show, even if it’s hard for me to keep from swaying to the music.”