Saturday, August 25, 2018

it's Bernstein's centenary

As you'll know if you've seen today's Google doodle, it's the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, who grew up in the Boston area and attended Harvard before going off to New York and making his name as a young composer and conductor.

The tension between those professions defined Bernstein's professional life. He wanted to buckle down to serious work as a composer, but even though he resigned his position as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, kept finding that conducting - and his related need to educate, both in mentoring younger conductors and performers (many of whom are at the top of the profession today) and in giving public, often televised, talks in music education - kept distracting him.

As a conductor, Bernstein was highly emotional and a bit eccentric. He liked to exaggerate the structural joins in large compositions, which actually made him a good choice for a young enthusiast learning his way around the standard repertoire, which is what I was in the 1970s when Bernstein's recordings of it - just about all of it; he was insanely prolific - dominated the record-store shelves.

I also weaned on Bernstein's musical education programs and writings, particularly those geared to children. I later came to disagree with some of his views, but there's no question he was gifted as an educator and imaginative as a pedagogue as well as learned in musical theory and history. But not all of it was that simple. I'd like to direct your attention to this video from a Harvard lecture, a virtuoso five-minute whirlwind summary of the development of tonal harmony. It's perfectly clear technically though historically oversimplified, but I wonder if it makes sense to those uneducated in musical theory or does it fly over your heads?

As a composer, Bernstein was most at home in musical theater or other works with at least a whiff of the stage about them. He made his name with stage shows in the 40s and reached his pinnacle in that form in the 50s with West Side Story (which was a hit in its first production) and Candide (which was not - largely due to the book, the spoken-word part, which was later replaced and the show's done better in revivals). After that, Bernstein tended to feel he wasn't devoting enough time and thought to his compositions and wished he had more to give, but he was too busy and too distracted.

Nevertheless he did get some fine works done, although his magnum opus as a composer, Mass of 1971, received some scathing reviews for its "vulgar" populism, which damaged the composer's self-confidence you may be sure. It's not really until since Bernstein's death in 1990 that Mass has come to be accepted as the giant achievement in early postmodern art that it really is, and one of the few truly great spiritual choral-orchestral masterpieces of its century.

A good introduction to Bernstein's work as a composer is this little summary here. I like its choice of clips, though the sound quality of the one from Mass is poor, and I'm not sure how well an excerpt works out of context, as Mass is very much a work of its cumulative power.

If you're ready for some first-rate full-length performances of Bernstein's staged masterpieces, I have two of them online here: an impressive Mass from the BBC Proms, conducted by Kristjan Järvi,

and an utterly delightful Candide from the NY Philharmonic (the one from which Kristin Chenoweth's "Glitter and Be Gay" is excerpted in the introduction piece linked above), conducted by Marin Alsop (a Bernstein protege).

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