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

GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

“Dracula” is a very old story. The first (and probably best) cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale was F.W Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922) with Max Schreck. Under Tod Browning‘s direction, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi personified Hollywood’s vision of the character in Dracula (1931). George Melford made what has become known as the “Spanish” Dracula (1931), which was more fluid than Browning’s version, but saddled with an absurdly inept vampire in Carlos Villarías. Lon Chaney Jr., as Alucard (spell it backward), a Count who needs to watch his carbs, seemed to have effectively staked the character for good in Son Of Dracula (1943). However, John Carradine made Dracula as a supporting character in the mediocre monster mash, House of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House of Dracula (1945).

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

By the mid-1940s, Bram Stoker’s vampire seemed as hokey, outdated, and timid as his penny dreadful precursor “Varney the Vampire.” The genuine horrors of the Second World War, Fascism, and death camps rendered a nightly bloodsucker toothless. Dracula (Lugosi for the second and last time) was resurrected, for laughs, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which by then seemed apt. Since then, celluloid incarnations of Dracula resurface with occasional, albeit brief vitality.

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

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LA LONTANANZA NOSTLAGICA UTOPICA FUTURA (short film)

http://www.theindependentcritic.com/la_lontananza_nostalgica_utopica_futura

THE FILM IS ALSO TEMPORARILY AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING (WITH STATEMENT) @

http://366weirdmovies.com/la-lontananza-nostalgica-utopica-futura-2014/

IMDB LISTING

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4258080/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_2  James Mannan as Van Gogh in La lontananza nostalgica utopia futura. Alfred Eaker as Paul Gauguin in La lontananza nostalgica utopia futura.James Mannan as V. Van Gogh in La lontananza nostalgica utopia futura.

LA LONTANANZA SHOOT 8Alfred Eaker as Gauguin (ravaged by syphilis) in La lontananza nostalgica utopia futura.LA LONTANANZA SHOOTLA LONTANANZA SHOOT 2Alfred Eaker as Gauguin2 (ravaged by syphilis) in La lontananza nostalgica utopia futura.James Mannan as Vincent Van Gogh,  in La lontananza nostalgica utopica futuraJames Mannan as Vincent Van Gogh in La lontananza nostalgica utopia futura.

KEN RUSSELL’S MAHLER (1974)

Ken Russell Mahler  poster

Mahler (1974) is probably  Ken Russell`s most personal film. As expected this filmmaker  admirably refuses to treat  his subject with phony reverence. Rather than a plaster saint here, Mahler is a neurotic, obsessive Jewish composer, hen-pecked husband and an artist whose drive stems from flesh.

Ken Russell Mahler  opening Mahler 3rd

Unknown to him at the time, actor Robert Powell’s role as the composer was his audition to play one Jesus of Nazareth for Franco Zeffirelli three years later. Powell’s Mahler is not the Mahler of a Mahler cult. Mahler’s writing is clearly an immense struggle, as is his relationship with his wife, family, colleagues and admirers.

Ken Russell Mahler  Powell & Hale

Russell pays Mahler authentic homage in not succumbing to the type of pedestrian biopic cultists tend to favor. That type of bio treatment can be seen in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), the kind of well-intentioned but hopelessly unimaginative film one expects from a fan. Julie Taymor`s Across the Universe (2007) takes the opposite approach in her stubborn insistence that the Beatles are not sacred and, thus, aptly produced a film as experimental as were the Beatles themselves (she did Stravinsky and Shakespeare the same honors with Oedipus Rex in 1993 and Titus in 1999).

Ken Russell Mahler still

Ever the renegade spirit, Russell, like Taymor, digs into an idiosyncratic interpretation of the artist’s core. Mahler (1974) opens to the first movement of the existential Third Symphony (conducted by Bernard Haitink) juxtaposed against the composer’s hut on a lake, bursting into Promethean flames. Mahler’s mummified wife, Alma (the resplendent Georgina Hale) emerges from a cocoon on the beach and crawls on jagged rocks, struggling to free herself of her bindings. Atop a rock is a bust of her husband, which she embraces and kisses. This dream imagery is explained by a terminally ill Mahler to Alma, who is not amused and misinterprets the dream as a symbolic marital power struggle. Mahler himself fatalistically interprets the dream as one signifying her birth, made possible by his inevitable, impending death. The entire film takes place on Mahler’s final train ride and is interwoven with dreams and flashbacks, piling one existential layer upon another.

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BLUEMAHLER CYCLE: SYMPHONY ONE

BlueMahler’s intensely subjective and brief presentation of his personally ideal recorded cycle of the Gustav Mahler symphonies.

Arnold Schoenberg claimed all that is representative of Mahler is to be found in his First Symphony and I sure as hell am not one to argue with Schoenberg, so the first is the inevitable place to start.  Naturally, no single interpretation can say everything there is to say, so here are a choice seven performances and I will start with Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein is to Mahler what Wilhelm Furtwangler was to Beethoven during the war years. Since the days of Bernstein, the recorded Mahler cycle has become annoyingly faddish, but, in the end, Bernstein’s Mahler remains one of the most vital for the ages.  In Bernstein’s DG recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, this legendary conductor flings off any idea of a hair shirt; he is buoyant, bright, and contagiously enthusiastic.  After the first two bucolic movements, Bernstein invests the funeral march with humor, aplomb, and zest; a bit like the adolescent enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe. Bernstein follows the march with a prophetic finale that literally sears everything in sight.

Rafael Kubelik leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a poetic performance which milks every ounce of color from the composer’s palette. It will wash right over you. The Marketing team at DG knew what they were doing when they chose a painting from Gustav Klimt for the cover.  This performance has had a considerable reputation since its release. It is well deserved.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: BOULEZ CONDUCTS THE MAHLER LIEDER.

MAHLER LIEDER.

In his recordings of various artists’ song cycles,Boulez,it
seems,often has been inspired to producing some of his most profound
performances.
His classic recordings of the little performed songs of Ravel,
Schoenberg, and Berg still remain the yardstick by which all others
are measured.
Now, comes his arrival of three Mahler lieder and the results are
something to celebrate.
Indeed, this may prove to be his best Mahler yet.
In the Ruckert Lieder, Boulez coaxes both the Viennal Players and
Violeta Urmana into producing sensuous sounds and colors which could
come straight out the most transparent Klimt paintings.
It’s my personal favorite of the three, but that opinion is already
biased, as I have a definite soft spot for this piece.
Thomas Quasthoff is appropriately noble in the Lieder eines fahrenden
Gesellen and Anne-Sofie von Otter has arguably never been more
profund than in the Kindentotenlieder found here.
Boulez proves here that he’s far more than ‘just’ a musical
intellect, he also has acute rhythmic instinct.
Each singer is perfectly cast, the sound is superb and Boulez’s
conducting is among his most crystal clear and lucid to date.
Like his other song cycles, this should prove to be a
genuine ‘classic’.

MAHLER SYMPHONY 2

This is a highly theatrical Mahler 2nd,not theatrical in the narrative sense, but something more akin to the theatricality found in Oskar Schlemmer’s “Triadische Ballet”.

Boulez’s vision of the “Resurrection” seems more conceptual performance art than opera house minded. This is a resurrection imbued with cubist light (think Georges Braque’s ‘Candlestick”, his lighthouse from “Harbor in Normandy” or the cool light colors found in Schlemmer’s “Four Figures and Cube”.

I was reminded much of the (often surreal) gnostic preoccupation with light and while this may not be a hardcore believer’s orthodox “Resurrection”, it certainly springs from a uniquely individualistic perspective.

Those wanting a full throttled, operatic, goose bump inducing “Resurrection” should be steered towards Leonard Bernstein’s let you hair down Sony recording with New York.

Personally, I want them both.

MAHLER SYMPHONY 5

This is a much recorded work, yet Boulez has something to add.

Some reviewers have claimed this is Boulez’s most ‘traditional’ performance of Mahler’s works and point to the pretty standard length of the famous adagietto as evidence.

I disagree.

Boulez’s approach to Mahler (like his Wagner) has been strongly Debussian from the beginning, and this fifth is one of the most pointedly Debussian, for this is not the stereotypical approach of hazy impressionism, but the diaphanous prism of ‘Jeux”.

For, the most part, Mahler shed his Wunderhorn skin with this pivotal work and so too does Boulez divorce the work from the nostalgic associations it has since acquired (Kennedy’s funeral, “Death in Venice”), yet he doesn’t jump the gun towards an easily predictable, superficial route to clarify his point. He savors the adagietto as an unraveling composition in it’s own right, drawing out every nuanced color,yet without over sentimentality.

Boulez yields supreme control over the whole canvas and there is elegance aplenty.
This is a challenging performance and, upon repeated listening, yields many surprises and rewards.

* My take on the Boulez Mahler lieder from a 2005 Fringe post. 5 years later, it is still the one I always pull out. Posting it here, along with my take on Boulez’s M2,  and M5 (strangely, I never wrote on his M7, possibly his most idiosyncratic Mahler and, therefore, my favorite).  DG will be releasing Boulez’ adagio from the M10, later this year (You have to give it to Boulez, he has never accepted the Cooke addition as valid and still refuses to conduct it, regardless of how popular it has become. His Sony recording of the M10 adagio was once described as having the quality of steel and I agree).

Of course, DG will undoubtedly release that with a coupling and I am hoping they do so with Boulez’s Bruckner 7th or 9th, both of which he has performed in Chicago. Boulez’s DG recording of the Bruckner 8th stunned many, myself included.