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Leonard Bernstein's Centennial proves his greatness as a composer

When Leonard Bernstein was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, he was celebrated as America's first maestro. Four years earlier, he had captured much of the nation in CBS & # 39; omnibus with his absorbing analysis of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. And with his full embrace of television, he not only became the country's leading music educator, but also demonstrated what an electrifying conductor he was.

All this has largely been agreed for decades. What becomes more visible in 2018 in the midst of its centenary celebrations is its greatness as a composer. Of all the eulogies he received this year, he would have liked nothing more than to increase his compositions in size.

I would go further and say that Lawrence-born Boston-born Bernstein was the greatest composer we've seen since the iconic modernists of the early and mid-20th century ̵

1; Stravinsky, Bartók, and Shostakovich. This is heresy for "serious music" mavens, especially those whose taste reaches to atonal and twelve-tone, but with the recent wave of CDs, DVDs, concerts and books, it's obvious that Bernstein's eclectic approach to music is standard Many of us listen to music today – without borders or strict definitions. It is also, like a growing number of composers, from Nico Muhly to Vijay Iyer, seeing their own writing in which rock, jazz and classical music feed each other and inform each other.

  Leonard Bernstein with his Grammy Award 1985. (
Leonard Bernstein with his life work Grammy Award 1985. (AP)

Bernstein's speech at the Grammys in 1985, where he received a lifetime achievement award, summarizes this eclecticism: [19659007] "I'm very tonight I'm looking forward to music, and I'll be even happier, and perhaps even more ecstatic, if tonight's a step toward the ultimate wedding of all kinds of music, because they are all one only good music and there are bad ones. "19659008] Bernstein himself struggled to live up to this credo, hoping to write the great piece of" serious music "that would connect him with the Stravinsky music history.

But he has already been there.

Take a look at his musicals and operas, if you look at them as one entity – not as music theater, but as music for the theater – then who has in Twentieth and Twenty-first century works are "West Side Story," "Candide," "On the Town, Wonderful Town, Trouble in Tahiti, The Ballets Dybbuk and Fancy Free, Songfest, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Mass, A Quiet Place and the beautiful ones when known as "Peter Pan."

Breaking these pieces into traditional genre lines makes it easy to discard amber. Igor Strawinsky did not like "West Side Story"; It was probably not much more classic than "The Music Man". No Bopper would think that one of Bernstein's works was bluesy enough to be considered memorable jazz. As a Rock & Roll scooter in the 70s, I was not interested in my roommate's "mass" release.

But genre definitions fall away and a portrait of a true musical genius emerges. Like others before and after him, Bernstein embodied a multitude of musical forms and emerged with a wealth of works of passion, warmth, spirit, spirituality, loneliness, doubt and rebellion. His determination not to indulge in desperation could cradle him in his texts, as in his Third Symphony, but the music has always had a more sophisticated response to the way we live our lives today.

It's worth quoting Allen Shawn. Author of "Leonard Bernstein, an American musician" from 2014, regarding the complexity of music. Here he talks about "West Side Story":

"The music is almost Beethoven in its dependence on a few motifs and interval combinations to unify their heterogeneous sections." The story gave Bernstein the opportunity to celebrate two idioms, which were taken for granted by him: Latin American music for the Puerto Rican immigrants and a jazz that was coined by the bebobs for the "self-proclaimed" Americans (Bernstein's words) to encourage him to explore his quest for an operatic language from music theater. The play introduces a variant of the Shofar's call to worship … Where other composers can be noted as influences [particularly Stravinsky] the influences evaporate; nothing could sound more like Midcentury, urban America. The score has vocal sections of operational complexity and substance, especially the "Tonight" ensemble.

He also cites Kenneth Tynan's description of "West Side Story": "It sounds as if Puccini and Stravinsky had gone on a rollercoaster ride into modern jazz.

While Shawn's excellent analysis can be extended to include Bernstein's other works for the Broadway stage, especially "Candide," the process can usually simply be reversed as "classical," especially the jazziness of his symphonies and orchestral works such as " Prelude, Fugue and Riffs "or the almost pop-lyric poetry in parts of" Serenade "and" Chichester Psalms "And it becomes clearer with each passing The year in which his one-act opera" Trouble in Tahiti "and its more controversial" Fair "as good as the music for the theater, as well as for his only push to compose for the film" On the Waterfront. "

Bernstein himself fought with the idea that he had to play something more traditional than" Trouble in Tahiti " , which led to his last great work, "A quiet place." His assistant Charlie Harmon reports on his arguments with the piece "On the road with Leonard Bernstein: My Years m it the annoying genius ". It's about the years 1982 to 1985 while Bernstein was doing whirlwind tours and trying to finish the opera. These were also years when his body could not keep up with his spirit and the alcohol, pills and tobacco took a terrible toll. For all the trios and paces described in the book, Harmon has a clear view of Bernstein's status as a conductor and composer. After having stayed for a party throughout the night to experience astronomical convergence, Harmon suggests that he sees himself instead of the stars: "The dynamic energy of the universe?" It started with a man who bought a cigarette and held a glass of scotch. "

The best example of Bernstein's all-round gifts as a composer is Deutsche Grammophon's" Complete Works, "which are performed by the man himself whenever possible. With 26 CDs and three DVDs, it's a pretty daunting introduction to his work. But as the symphonies go into the musicals, the ballet "Dybbuk" leads to Michael Tilson Thomas, who rolls the best music from "A Quiet Place" into an orchestral suite, while the poetry of "Peter Pan" becomes his operatic masterpiece, " Trouble in Tahiti ", it becomes clear that in all his work there was a musical language that surpassed the genre. And although the original versions of "West Side Story" and "Candide" are superior to the opera versions in this collection, the orchestral versions of the DG versions are out of this world and make it better to square the circle with its others

The Pianist Leann Osterkamp brings a one-person show of Bernstein's musical language to the Steinway & Sons label's two-CD complete keyboard work, one of several excellent solo piano CDs this year. She heard her mix the anniversaries and write for his friends with Judaica. Works that later appeared in musicals and symphonies once again show how his writing transcended the genre without sacrificing any sophistication. It's like listening to a great jazz pianist flipping his compositions.

Listen to what Osterkamp and Michael Barrett did to coworkers Adolph Green and Betty Comden's "Just In Time," the first part of the "Bridal Suite" Bernstein wrote in 1960 for Greens' marriage to Phyllis Newman:

Bernstein was also known for his mentorship of young conductors in Tanglewood and elsewhere. Many, such as Tilson Thomas and Kent Nagano, have rewarded him by continuing his composing legacy with great personal amber recordings.

And not to mention Marin Alsop's eight CD Naxos collection. Alsop was as important to American women as Bernstein was to men and was actually cared for by him in Tanglewood. She is so at home with Lenny that many critics think she does a better job with his music than he does himself. In general I would not go that far, even though these are the best shots of "Mass" (thanks in large part to that) appropriately named Jubilant Sykes as Celebrant) and his problematic Symphony No. 3 (thanks to Claire Bloom's weakening), the melodramatic narrative that Bernstein recorded twice, once with his wife Felicia Montealegre.

For the inauguration of the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the "Mass" was dismissed as too polyglot at the time. Today it stands for Bernstein's musical vision. Here, the electricity of "West Side Story" meets political anger over Vietnam and personal and philosophical anger over the silence of God. It's not rock and it's not Broadway music and it's not classic, but it's great music that includes all its passions.

The whole video is worth seeing, but Alsop and Bernstein are together at 1: 50:

"mass" is hardly without cliché. The purple of Bernstein's prose was often embarrassing, especially in the Third Symphony. And although Stephen Wadsworth had a certificate of appreciation for the opera "A Quiet Place", Bernstein must bear a significant part of the blame for the banality of the libretto.

Yet, there is some beautiful music under it when the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, which loved amber, performed this summer. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Pops went on Lenny in both Boston and Lenox. They repeated the show I saw a few years ago, their great accompaniment to "West Side Story," which beautifully blends with the Barrington Stage Company, though no less powerful, production of the musical in Pittsfield (until September 1) ). The Knights staging of "Candide" in Tanglewood was a lot of fun. (I am sorry that I missed the acclaimed production of "On the Town" by Pops.)

Bernstein loved to conduct in Tanglewood. (Amber on Tanglewood CDs, unfortunately, got through, according to Bernstein's office.) His concerts have always been events and the BSO returned the favor by playing most of his orchestral music (except the complete "Mass"), which was accompanied by everyone. Yo Ma to Boston Ballet

On Saturday ends with a gala concert with Ma, Audra McDonald, Midori and BSO, and Pops's conductors, past and present. Hopefully this will be the coda that, like the BSO and Tanglewood seasons, brings together all facets of Bernstein's compositional skills.

  The cast of
The cast of "Candide" with the knights in Seiji Ozawa Hall. (Courtesy of Hilary Scott / Boston Symphony Orchestra.)

George Steel, conservator of music at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and former advisor to Bernstein, takes over the baton in September, at least figuratively. Almost all of the concerts this fall are something of the composer's part of "In Boston, It's Amber" included. I'm especially looking forward to the Claremont Trio playing his trio on November 11, when he visited Harvard at the ripe old age of 19.

One of the great joys of the summer was his daughter, Jamie Bernstein's "Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Amber." In the midst of childhood pleasures, the traumatic adolescents, the quest to find oneself, the father passes from his wife to gay men, and his dissolution in late life, there is a wise analysis of her father's musical gifts and his mistakes.

  Leonard Bernstein with his daughter Jamie at the Metropolitan Opera in 1969. (AP)
Leonard Bernstein with his daughter Jamie at the Metropolitan Opera in 1969. (AP)

Bernstein has recorded as a composer, conductor, teacher and overall presence What it means to be alive in the second half of the 20th century. Personally, he showed what it meant to accept American assimilation and ethnic pride almost equally. Sheet music was not just notes, but a guide to a life, especially life to the left of the middle.

That's all in music too. As Jamie Bernstein says at the end of the book:

"The notes he strung together are as unique, identifiable as a fingerprint." We hear the grueling violin solo in the slow movement of "Serenade," the boisterous "Profanation." "Jeremiah" symphony or the jagged, impulsive "Rumble" from "West Side Story," and there he is – in all things, his tenderness, his tribulation, his intellectual talent, his anguish over God, his despair over humanity, his cautious but persistent hope that we all arrive somewhere. "

It's all there, in all its music.

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