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

PIERRE BOULEZ AND THE LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY: INHERITING THE FUTURE OF MUSIC

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,” and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) Stravinsky’s “Rite,” Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,” and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Maderna.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him.

*review from 2012.  Pierre Boulez died, at the age of 90, in January 2016. This was one of the final filmed documents of his work.

THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

Pierrot Lunaire from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann) Christine Schafer

Oilver Herrmann was quickly proving to be an artist of provocative potential after creating the innovative short films “Dichterlieb” (2000), “One Night, One Life” (2002), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (released 2004). Tragically, Herrmann’s life and career were cut short when he died of a diabetic stroke at the age of 40 in 2003.  A few months after his death, his partner, soprano Christine Schafer, a specialist in 20th/21st century music, gave birth to their second child.

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

All three have been released on home video with “Dichterlieb” and “One Night, One Life” available together and “Le Scare du Printemps” on a second DVD. The primary interest in the “One Night, One Life” collection is Herrman’s film of Arnold Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” conducted by modern music specialist Pierre Boulez and starring Schäfer. A bit of history may be needed for Schoenberg’s atonal[1], expressionist melodrama. Set to Albert Giraud’s text, the poems, usually spoken by a soprano, are delivered in “Sprechgesang” (spoken singing).

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

Upon its 1912 premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” predictably offended the traditionalists. Much publicity was made about it, mostly bad, but at least this was a period when new music and new composers actually grabbed headlines. As late as the 1970s, conservative NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg claimed that “Pierrot Lunaire”‘s’ failure to enter the standard repertoire was an indictment of contemporary music. Yet, the 21st century has (somewhat) rendered Schonberg’s assessment as premature. If not quite part of the daily repertoire diet, “Lunaire” is extensively recorded and performed. One might envision it someday becoming as commonplace as Beethoven.

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life ( DIR. Oliver Herrmann) Christine Schafer

However, together, Herrmann, Boulez, and Schäfer produce a commendable effort to rectify its potentially harmful respectability. The proof is in the pudding as far as music forum reviews go, with the hopelessly puritan music fans expressing outrage towards Herrmann’s blasphemous filming of music that was labeled blasphemous in 1912. One would think, with the combination of Schoenberg, Boulez, Herrmann, and Schäfer, blasphemy would and should be expected. Schoenberg is a composer who was and remains spiritually antithetical to the tenets of fundamentalism, and yet, long dead in his grave, he holds no sway with that lot. Fortunately, the principals speak blasphemy fluently and refuse to appease those who prefer art-music to be neutered, polished, and pedestaled. Schoenberg’s sense of danger is not only intact, but expanded upon.

Pierrot Lunaire (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

Continue reading

AVANT OPERA ON FILM

Boulez Chereau Rheingold

In 1976, at Pierre Boulez’s suggestion, Wolfgang Wagner brought in the 31 year old progressive French stage and film director Patrice Chereau to produce a new “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival, and aptly teamed him with Boulez as conductor. The result scandalized and shook the entire opera world. Conservative musicologists, such as arch conservative NY times critic Harold C. Schonberg, loudly expressed moral outrage and pointed to this production as an “opening of the flood gates” (some hysterically labeled this a Marxist “Ring”). Four years later, television director Brian Large filmed the Chereau/Boulez Ring and televised it over a period of a week. It was a ratings and critical smash.
Over 30 years later, this production’s power and legend remains undiminished. It was the first complete filmed “Ring” and is now looked upon by most as pioneering and the greatest of its kind.

BOULEZ CHEREAU RING

The stand out cast, which includes Donald McIntyre, unforgettable as Wotan and Heinz Zednick as Loge personified,has hardly been bettered. Richard Peduzzi’s stage design and Large’s camera work are exemplary, but this remains Chereau and Boulez’s Ring.

Donald McIntyre's Wotan. Boulez. Chéreau Das Rheingold.

Chereau, who was unfamiliar with Wagner and the work, endows this Ring with a fresh perspective. His is a penetrating, industrial age, Freudian ring, idiosyncratically interpreted in political, social and psychological terms.

BOULEZ CHEREAU WAGNER RING

The avant-garde advocate Boulez, who had previously conducted a radical, acclaimed “Parsifal”, brings an equally fresh perspective to this much interpreted work. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, accustomed to playing Wagner with opaque rolling thunder,came dangerously close to striking in protest or Boulez’s complex, brisk, diaphanous, minimalist approach. Continue reading

An Aptly Titled Boulezian Primer

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,”and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) , Stravinsky’s “Rite,”Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,”and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Madera.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him