LEONARD BERNSTEIN CENTENARY: A BELATED THANK YOU, LENNY

I grew up watching Leonard Bernstein’s The Young People’s Concert. Lenny instilled in me a love for music, which I have to this day almost fifty years later. He’s been gone since 1990 and although he’s had wonderful successors (Michael Tilson Thomas and Marin Alsop are two who immediately spring to mind), no one has been able to match his charisma and I doubt ever will.

Lenny probably had a impact on me that equals the influences I’ve had in my own chosen art (performance, painting, writing) so, in celebration of his centenary, this is a belated thank you, Lenny for the immeasurable joy you’ve brought to my life.

Below is a short introductory list of what (for me) is quintessential Bernstein. It is by no means all-inclusive.

I’m going to start with Bernstein’s own music and the music of his which has resonated with me the most is Mass.

I was a teenager when I encountered and fell in love with Mass. It premiered in 1971 to mostly negative reviews. Year later, it played at the Vatican. Imagine that. The FBI, having kept files on Bernstein, warned then President Nixon that Mass was both anti-war and anti-establishment. Oh my. Needless to say, Nixon didn’t attend. Commissioned by Jaqueline Kennedy, Bernstein composed it for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Reportedly, there were cries of “blasphemy” at the premiere, which inspired Lenny to literally bang his head against the wall in frustration. Some have called it a rock opera, but labels ultimately are silly. It definitely reflects the tumultuous 60s and has a reverential spirit of irreverence. Like much of Bernstein’s music, it’s about the struggle of faith, heard most beautifully in “Word of the Lord” and most comically in “God Said.” This Sony recording is the composer’s own.

As she is apt to do, Marin Alsop actually topped Lenny with her 2009 recorded performance on Naxos. Go with both.

Of course, Lenny’s operetta Candide is based off the famous Voltaire novel of bite. It was a major flop at its1956 premiere and underwent numerous revisions until the final one in 1989. This is the essential video performance (still waiting for it on blu-ray) from Deutsche Gramophone. Some prefer the original. It’s a case of both/and, but if I had to pick I’m going to go with seeing (a quite ill, but spirited) Lenny conduct what is perhaps his finest score. Christa Ludwig singing “I’m so easily assimilated” is the stuff of satirical dreams.

West Side Story. Bernstein’s most famous work needs no introduction. Most refer to the movie. Don’t. Bernstein finally got around to recording the full score himself in 1985. The result was controversial with many objecting to his use of opera singers. Jose Carreras was the most debated casting. Personally, I respond enthusiastically to Carreras’ and wonder how anyone could doubt him after hearing “Maria,” “Tonight,” or “Something’s Coming.” For me, Kiri Te Kanawa is more questionable; gorgeous but ultimately too cool, especially when compared to the warm and much missed Tatiana Troyanos, who practically steals the entire show. Perhaps the video “West Side Story: Making Of The Recording” has colored opinions against Carreras when we see Bernstein chain smoking (nobody inhaled smoky treats as cool he) and mercilessly grilling the soprano. Small flaws aside, both the recording and documentary are musts. An extra bonus on the cd is Bernstein’s robust and authoritative score for On The Waterfront, which only makes one wish he had done more of this. Still, for that proverbial desert island paradise, I’d have to foremost recommend Michael Tilson Thomas’ 2014 performance with his SFO. However, be forewarned, with Thomas’ performance; delightfully spontaneous but smooth, you’ll probably never go back to listening to another.

Perhaps no other American musician had a better pulse on suburbia than Bernstein in his 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti. It’s wittily devastating. Later he incorporated it into the longer A Quiet Place. Stick with the compact original.

Symphony 2, The Age of Anxiety

Although Bernstein’s First Symphony, Jeremiah is right acclaimed, I have a soft spot for the eternally underrated Second Symphony: The Age of Anxiety, composed in 1949 and revised in 1965. It’s titled after the famous poem of W.H. Auden. Bernstein later recorded this, with the first symphony, Chichester Psalms, Fancy Free, and Symposium Serenade on DG. Those are fine, but his earlier traversals on Sony are spikier. All three are mandatory Bernstein, even if Alsop again surpasses him.

In other composers, with Bernstein, you almost have to start with Mahler because although he was by no means the first Mahler conductor, he was the force that was most responsible for the Mahler revival. That he was a damned fine conductor of Mahler is icing on the cake.

Mahler Symphony 9

A great artist’s final essay on a great artist’s final completed work; Bernstein’s Concertgebouw recording of the Mahler 9th is incinerating. The closing adagio is not just the end of Mahler’s life, and Lenny’s life, but all life.

 Mahler Symphony 7

Mahler’s most problematic symphony (AKA Modern-Schoenberg adored it) is a Bernstein language. Only Herman Scherchen painted the scherzo more macabre. If you can get through the second nightmusic without mauling your better half, you might want to check your pulse. As for the finale, only Daniel Barenboim is as psychedelic. Bernstein recorded it three times, but it’s the earlier Sony NYP technicolor version that boils with a young conductor’s blood. Bernstein’s DG recordings of the 6th (watch out for loose putty on the wall) and 5th (a melting Adagietto that will beautifully break your heart) must also be experienced.

 Mahler Symphony 2

Constipated New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg incessantly complained about Bernstein’s New York Mahler 2nd, saying the conductor over accentuated and was heart- on-sleeve. Actually, Lenny revels in musical kitsch. His later DG recording is probably the yardstick by which all future Mahler 2s will be measured and you really cannot go through life without them.

Mahler Symphony 1

The climax is really in a funeral march straight out of Edgar Alan Poe.

George Gershwin Rhapsody In Blue and An American In Paris

Nobody conducted American music like Lenny and so I’ll start with his George Gershwin. Lenny conducts Gershwin from the piano and although there’s a lot of competition (including his own later versions on DG) it is these youthful traversals for Sony that sweep the field.

Roy Harris Symphony 3

Possibly the greatest American symphony by America’s greatest conductor. Nuff said.

Charles Ives (various)

Probably America’s wackiest composer in red-blooded readings. The Unanswered Question was a lifelong quest for Lenny.

Aaron Copland (various)

People are still mixed on Copland. Put all hesitations aside. With Lenny, you’ll believe.

Samuel Barber Adagio For Strings

I hope to leave this mortal coil listening to this.

Edward Elgar Enigma Variations

In one of his scant explorations into British music, Lenny screws Elgar. Since I can’t abide Elgar, I adore this because whatever it is, it’s not Elgar. Lenny at his most heterodox, which is saying a lot.

Joseph Haydn London Symphonies

Bernstein never failed to surprise, as he does here. Who would have thought that Lenny, of all people, would have an orthodox love affair with Haydn? Pure Nirvana.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Great Mass In C Minor

Ok, Lenny was not at his most natural in the boy from Salzburg, but I defy anyone to find a better Great Mass.

Ludwig Van Beethoven String Quartets 131 & 135

Lenny was a vastly underrated conductor of Beethoven, especially compared with some of the master’s grossly overrated interpreters (I’m looking at you, Herbert). Bernstein identified as much with Beethoven as he did Schumann (below) and listed this recording of the String Quartets as his own personal favorite. He dedicated it to his late wife; Felicia. Theirs was an epic, flawed love story. Lenny never recovered from his having wronged her or her untimely death. These will literally send you to the chapel. His piano concertos with Serkin (Sony), Eroica (both recordings), 7th (from the Vienna cycle) Missa Solemnis, and Fidelio are manna from heaven. His final recorded performance was a Beethoven 7th with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He knew it was his last and it’s agonizing (he barely gets through the third movement). It should be experienced, if not visited too often. It’s too personal and too painful a valedictory.

Robert Shumann Four Symphonies and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (various)

Schumann and Tchaikovsky are artists that Bernstein personally identified with as strongly as he did Beethoven and Mahler. He elevates them both to Mahlerian planes.

Jean Sibelius (various)

Lenny was an early impassioned advocate of Jean Sibelius. Lock yourself in the house for a week.

Antonin Dvorak Symphony 9

If there is a reference recording of this much performed music, this is it.

Igor Stravinsky Le Sacre Du Printemps

Early heavy metal. Stravinsky was in the audience of this performance and said merely: “Wow.” Although, I have better testimony for its greatness; my cat-who leapt off the speaker.

Richard Wagner Tristan und Isolde

Forget that Wagner was a monster. Forget that Bernstein (understandably) normally avoided that virulent anti-semite like the plague. This is molten Tristan und Isolde that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Wilhlem Furtwangler. One of Bernstein’s most forgotten and criminally underrated, incandescent hours.

and of course…

Leonard Bernstein 1918-1990

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL

 Ken Russell

Parts I  & 2 of a retrospective covering the theatrical feature films of  (1927-2011) originally posted at 366 Weird Movies. Russell also produced an extensive number of documentaries, television films (many of which were composer biographies), and short films, which will not be covered here.

Ken Russell

The late Ken Russell is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and visionary filmmakers in the entirety of cinema. Excessive and flamboyant, he was often dismissed by mainstream critics. Russell was equally criticized in avant-garde circles for not having the courage of his convictions (meaning he wasn’t academically non-linear enough. There’s a reason Russell is often compared to the painter Francis Bacon, who continued painting surreal figurative works in the age of academic abstract expressionism). Admirably, Russell had no use for categorizations, but as idiosyncratic as he was, his execution did not always rise to the concepts in his work.

KEN RUSSELL French Dressing

Russell’s strengths and weakness are evident in his first theatrical feature, French Dressing (1964). It’s a British caper comedy in the vein of Richaed Lester‘s Hard Day’s Night (1964). Initially it was a box office and critical failure. Russell’s penchant for surreal imagery and sharp edits is intact, although subtle by later standards. Even when subdued, Russell’s style doesn’t work for this kind of material, rendering the film heavy handed and narratively confused. However, it was original enough to develop a cult following, the first of many for Russell.

KEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar BrainKEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar Brain

Believing French Dressing to be a misfire, Russell returned to the safety of television work for three years before reemerging with his next feature, Billion Dollar Brain (1967). It is the second sequel in the Harry Palmer series, with Michael Caine once again taking the title role. Russell proved just as ill-suited for this spy thriller trying to cash in on the James Bond fad, but Brain is also a standout in the franchise. Russell’s personal, icy stylization is in evidence throughout the film’s more fantastic sequences. Russell is most in his element with chaos, and most bogged down with restraints imposed by script and production. Despite its flaws, Billion Dollar Brain tries to play elastic with its genre, rendering it a fun mess.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love


Women In Love
(1969) was the film that brought Ken Russell to worldwide attention (he was even nominated for Best Director). Many critics rank it as Russell’s most narratively satisfying film. Of course, Russell has D. H. Lawrence for a literary source and, despite its infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, the film is almost shockingly restrained and faithful to the spirit of Lawrence (out of necessity, Larry Kramer’s script, also nominated for an Academy Award, simplifies its literary source). Russell’s body of work, especially in television, reveals a highly erudite filmmaker who consistently approached literary themes and subjects with contextual fidelity, as opposed to surface literalism, which eventually branded him an irreverent enfant terrible.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love

Russell had a superb cast in Bates, Reed, Glenda Jackson (who won an Academy Award for her performance), and Jenny Linden. Billy Williams’ camerawork (yet another Oscar nominee) is lyrical, stark, and very much indicative of Russell to come.

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

After the box office and critical success of Women in Love, Russell plunged quickly into his first theatrical film with a composer as its subject. The Music Lovers (1970) focuses on Peter Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain). With expressionistic sets, psychedelic lensing, elongated fantasy sequences (clearly inspired by : Kenneth Anger and Fantasia), along with a spiritually irreverent, high-pitched tone, this is Russell as we came to know him. Forsaking the typical program bio of the Nutcracker composer, Russell is not at all interested in pedestrian ideas of a “biopic.” Frank about its subject’s banality (he ejaculates while imagining the cannons of his god awful “1812 Overture” aimed at his enemies) and homosexuality, many critics, Roger Ebert included, labeled the film libelous. Chamberlain, who years later came out of the closet, in a far more accepting period, expertly slips into the title role. As Nina, the composer’s sexually frustrated wife, Glenda Jackson again excels in her second collaboration with Russell (she also spends much of the film in full frontal nudity, which, of course, inspired a few exploding heads in the “classical music” scene).

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

In all fairness to Russell, Tchaikovsky was tormented by his sexuality (in a undoubtedly hostile era). His death, publicly attributed to cholera, was probably a suicide, and he admitted a self-loathing for producing such commissioned works as the “Nutcracker” and “1812.” Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s best work is his lesser-known, personal compositions. Andre Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with his usual craftsmanship. The film, like its subject, is aptly heart-on-sleeve.

Ken Russell The Devils

The Devils (1971) is considered by many cult film fans to be Russell’s masterpiece, and it is almost unfathomable that it would be denied a 366 List entry. Russell, a convert to Catholicism, was aware of that religion’s inherent surrealism. Attracted to the aesthetics of Catholicism, as opposed to its dogma (I can relate), Russell locates the pulse of European excesses. For the traditionalist minded, The Devils is unadulterated blasphemy.

Ken Russell The Devils
Loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun,”The Devils is the quintessential example of Russell excess (don’t dare look for a discernible plot)With opulent set designs by  (a frequent Russell collaborator), masturbating nuns, sadomasochistic demonic possessions, tormented priests of the Inquisition, and X-rated sexual fantasies, Russell is intentionally provocativesparing no demographic from potential offense (including Roger Ebert, an atheist and former Catholic). Oliver Reed gives the performance of his life as a sacred erection, in duet with a bewitching Vanessa Redgrave.

Ken Russell The Devils

Chicago Reader critic David Kehr found humor in The Devils and amusingly described it as a “David Lean remake of Pink Flamingos.” That’s about apt a summary as one can manage. More than forty years after its release, The Devils is no less subversive today, and has had spotty distribution in home video.

Ken Russell the Boy Friend

Russell followed The Devils with his only movie to receive a “G” rating. Starring Twiggy and adorned in an MGM color palette, The Boy Friend (1971) is an oddity in the Russell cannon. Based on Sandy Wilson’s 1954 play, Russell, with his charismatic lead, transforms it into a musical with an almost Wagnerian undercurrent (as if Busby Berkeley, clearly channeled here, isn’t demented enough). Twiggy’s charm serves as a counterbalance to Russell’s wandering camera. Christopher Gable co-stars (and will work with Russell again in 1989’s The Rainbow). Unfortunately, The Boyfriend was a box office flop, which prompted MGM to refuse Russell financial backing for his next film.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Taking out a second mortgage on his home, Russell financed Savage Messiah (1972) himself, which again finds the director examining artistic genius, here in the persona of French sculptor Henri Gaudier (Scott Antony). With Russell’s lifelong, obsessive passion for his subject, Savage Messiah is an authentic labor of love. Derek Jarman again serves as Russell’s art director, endowing Savage Messiah with Russell’s over-the top-visual sensibility (including an amorous Helen Mirren in a pop-colored cabaret). It is also an emotionally rich film focusing on the romance between Gaudier and Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin), which makes it all the more disappointing that MGM failed to promote it in distribution. Savage Messiah is, paradoxically, one of Russell’s most accomplished and least known works.

Ken Russell Mahler

Mahler (1974) is another highly personal film for Russell, which I previously wrote about here.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Starring The Who, Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed, Elton John (as the Pinball Wizard), Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner (as the Acid Queen), and Robert Powell, Tommy (1975) is undoubtedly Russell’s most famous film. Based on the Who’s 1969 rock opera,  many critics accused Russell of preferring spectacle to substance. Others felt Russell’s film was a too literal approach. Tommy divided both fans and critics alike, and still does. The flaws are more the Who’s than Russell’s. With his operatic tenets and sense to enough to know that good taste is often at enmity with good art, Russell makes Tommy a powerful, one-of-a-kind experience, with each act topping its predecessor, building to an aptly histrionic crescendo. Disorienting, sensual, and filled to the brim with salted pain, Tommy is that rarity of rarities: an artistically authentic opera and musical experience.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Reed, unleashed again, proves an ideal collaborator, and Ann-Margaret deservedly earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance as Tommy’s mother. Unfortunately, Roger Daltry is no actor, and his performance undeniably hinders the film.

Tommy is already a deserving List Candidate and hopefully will be canonized sometime in the future.

Ken Russell Lisztomania

Lisztomania (1975) is Russell’s idiosyncratic take on composer Franz Liszt. It is also an official List entry, found here.

Ken Russell Valentino

Under-directed by Russell and physically miscast, ballet star Rudolf Nureyev still convinces as the titular Valentino (1977). A mix of alarming self-control and unfettered hyperbole, this uneven film disappointed Russell fans who wanted something more experimental in the vein of Mahler and Lisztomania. It also disappointed cinema history buffs and Valentino fans who wanted (but should not have expected) something more orthodox.

Ken Russell ValentinoKen Russell Valentino

Despite flaws, Valentino is a beautiful film and accessible, if not constrained by historicity. Russell treats this subject no differently than others, including religion, as a mix of fantasy, facts, legend, and folklore.

Ken Russell Valentino

Valentino was Russell’s biggest budgeted film to date and was a resounding flop at the American box office (it did considerably better overseas). It has since developed a cult following and recently has been released on Blu-ray, although the transfer has received mixed reviews.

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OLIVER KNUSSEN’S “AUTUMNAL”: Yes, Knussen is making music with it

Oliver Knuseen AtumnalOliver Knussen is one of the most consistently interesting composer/conductors today. He does not join the ranks of the jet setting conductor variety and his repertoire has been varied and carefully chosen: from being an impassioned advocate of late Stravinsky (and late Stravinsky needs all the advocates he can get) to excellent surveys of Peter Lieberson, Colin Matthews, Robert Saxton,Peter Serkin, David Del Tredici, Marcus Lindberg, Poul Ruders, Julian Anderson, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Knussen has been a staunchly committed champion of Elliott Carter’s music and has premiered a staggering amount of new music (well on his way to rivaling Stokowski’s record of premieres), which have included Copland’s Grohg and Henze’s Undine. Among the most valuable of Knussen’s recordings is a quintessential collection of Stokowski’s Mussorgsky’s arrangements, which, perhaps in an actual first, surpassed the original. Continue reading

Karajan, Or, Beauty As I See It: Ambitious, compelling, beautifully complex, and commendably close

KARAJAN OR BEAUTY AS I SEE IT

Robert Dornhelm’s film Beauty As I See It is a compelling, ambitious documentary on the life and career of the late conductor Herbert Von Karajan, who, more than any other musician of the twentieth century, made an obsessive, downright bizarre fetish of surface beauty in musical interpretation.

KARAJAN PERFECT HAIR

A billion words have probably been written about Karajan, from the adulation of Richard Osborne, who surprisingly wrote the fairly well balanced biography, “Karajan, a Life in Music,” to Norman Lebrecht, author of the intentionally provocative “The Maestro Myth” who sometimes likens Karajan to Lucifer himself. 2009 was the centenary of Karajan’s birth and, predictably, the Berlin celebration garnered intense praise and intense criticism.

KARAJAN CONDUCTING

Karajan (who died in 1989) left far more audio recordings and filmed performances than any other conductor in history. His last series of films, for Sony, were produced, edited, and directed by himself, sparing no expense. Karajan is often lit from below, like a descending deity. This was the conductor’s final valentine to himself.

HERBERT VON KARAJAN Continue reading