It would be easy to say that 14 years after the death of Leonard Bernstein, the legendary American composer, conductor and educator casts a long shadow. But sunsets, darkness and shadows are just not the right metaphors. Bernstein is still a star, and his glowing light seems stronger than ever.
Some evidence: Almost 50 years after its premiere, “West Side Story” receives an average of 300 productions a year in the United States and Canada, while the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of “Wonderful Town” closes on Jan. 30, after having played more than 500 performances. In concert halls, Bernstein was the most-performed American orchestral composer during the 2003-04 season, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League.
Even the more thoughtful and less sunny aspects of Bernstein’s work seem to be shining lately. A collection of his famed “Young People’s Concerts” has just been reissued as a nine-DVD set, and his most daunting compositions of religious argument and political commentary including the cursing-the-heavens Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish” and the apocalyptic cry for peace “Mass” have been re-recorded and are getting performances on a surprisingly regular basis.
From the dancing to the preaching, virtually all facets of the Bernstein legacy can be seen and heard locally as part of The Egg‘s jam-packed festival “Leonard Bernstein’s Living Legacy,” which starts tonight. For two weeks, Albany will be the center of the Bernstein universe.
The lineup includes two orchestral programs, new takes on his music by jazz artists and a modern dance troupe, a theatrical exploration of his writings and ideas (“Score”), a visit from the composer’s daughter Jamie Bernstein Thomas, and more.
“He was a natural choice,” says series producer Peter Lesser of The Egg, explaining that the Bernstein fest is the first in the venue’s new series of “Living Legacy” tributes to great artists from the state. Lesser adds that it was easy to program a wide-ranging series of events, drawing on both local and national talent, because Bernstein’s influence stretches far beyond music and encompasses theater, dance and film.
“He managed to do a lot of different things well, (and) he didn’t have a lot of snobbery,” says Don Byron, a clarinetist and composer from New York City. “He always just showed that kind of openness to stuff, and then gave it all the same quality of effort.”
Byron will bring his jazz ensemble to Albany for a performance with the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company. Drawing on his deep knowledge of the Bernstein catalog, Byron selected mostly lesser-known songs and musical passages from shows like “Candide,” “West Side Story” and “Mass.” They will be performed in new arrangements with original choreography by Sinopoli.
Beyond his admiration of the music, Byron identifies with how Bernstein flourished in so many realms: Bernstein was an orchestra conductor who wrote successful Broadway shows; Byron is a black jazz musician who’s recorded klezmer material and writes chamber music.
“It’s about whether a person should be allowed to do this or that, or do this and that,” says Byron. Too often, “people feel betrayed by artists who go from one genre or style to another.”
The master was known to struggle with the kinds of conflicts Byron identifies. Besides his effort to break down the walls between the worlds of high art and popular entertainment, there was his desire to be both a conductor and public figure, and the need to write and compose in solitude. The constraints of time only added to the pressure.
All this plus the profusion of ideas that filled Bernstein’s head will be brought to the stage Friday night in “Score.” The 90-minute one-man show, drawn entirely from Bernstein’s own writings, was conceived by director Ann Bogart of the New York theater group Siti Company, and adapted by playwright Jocelyn Clarke.
“It’s one thing to hear the work of an inspiring giant, it’s another to meet him,” says Tom Nelis, who plays Bernstein. “This is an opportunity to be in the room with him speaking about his ideas.” Portraying the legendary man, Nelis says, “is an amazing, caffeinated experience.”
The inclusion of the Albany Symphony Orchestra in the Bernstein festival was a happy accident: Its program, a “Romeo and Juliet” evening, was scheduled long before The Egg announced its plans. “It just fell into place for us,” says Lesser.
Along with “West Side Story” and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the ASO will true to form also present the world premiere of a new work by Daron Hagen. The piece is a double concerto for Jeffrey Khaner, principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Sara Sant’Ambrogio, cellist of the Eroica Trio. It draws thematic inspiration from Shakespeare, and musical inspiration from Bernstein.
Sing the first two notes of that tune in your head (Ma-ri ). The distance or interval between those notes is known as a tritone something that standard musical instruction commands composers to avoid at all costs. Thus, Bernstein’s profligate use of tritones throughout the song (“Maria, Maria, Maria”) is quite audacious.
Hagen goes a step further by basing his entire concerto on the tritone. “The entire score of `West Side Story’ evolves from a tritone, and that little nuclear reactor fires my whole piece,” says the composer, who received informal composition and conducting lessons with Bernstein in the late 1980s.
“In my life, he just represented the musical equivalent of very, very pure air … a level of excellence and dedication and commitment to which one can aspire as a musician,” says Hagen.
Yet another fresh perspective on Bernstein is in store with “The Bernstein Beat,” a family program featuring excerpts from numerous works. It will be performed by the Empire State Youth Orchestra with narration by Jamie Bernstein Thomas, who is the co-author of the script. (She’s also a songwriter, but keeps her works tightly under wraps.)
“The way we went about writing this concert was to use the subject of rhythm as our theme. That automatically steers you to all the jumpiest Bernstein music,” she says. “I give (the kids) permission at the top of the concert to jump around and squirm in their seats to the music. I am personally incapable of sitting still while my dad’s music is playing.”
Bernstein Thomas regularly narrates “The Bernstein Beat” in concerts across the country, and keeps apprised of the myriad Bernstein recordings, performances and tributes. But his continued ascension into the pantheon of artistic greats has almost made her do a double take.
“I guess I just didn’t see it coming that he was going to be viewed in retrospect as one of the big personas of the 20th century … (but) that’s how they talk about him,” says Bernstein Thomas. “I knew he was terrific, but it seems to be going to the other level of reverence, and that’s a surprise.”
Originally published in the Times Union, January 13, 2005.
Also available in Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region.