Volume 17 • Issue 20 | October 08 - 14, 2004

Music

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: AN AMERICAN LIFE
WYNC FM, 93.9
Sundays, Oct. 10-Dec. 19, 4 p.m.
WNYC AM, 820
Sundays, Oct. 10-Dec. 19, 8 p.m.

Bernstein on the air

A widespread re-evaluation of the American master

By JASON VICTOR SERINUS

Immersed in the eclecticism of American culture, Leonard Bernstein was the first major American conductor to grow up listening to pop tunes and jazz. With Gilbert and Sullivan, Jerome Kern and black music among his early loves, his genius lay in an ability to assimilate pop, classical and uniquely American forms of music into genre-busting compositions endowed with an immediately identifiable personal voice.

Fourteen years after his death, Bernstein’s reputation as the most influential American composer/conductor of the last century has continued to grow. To honor his life and work, Chicago’s WFMT radio network and Steve Rowland have created “Leonard Bernstein: An American Life,” an 11-part radio documentary airing on a whopping 765 stations in the US, Canada and New Zealand (including XM Satellite Radio) starting in early October.

The radio series took six years to produce. One hundred people were interviewed and thousands of personal documents were scoured in order to create a rounded portrait of the man. Actress Susan Sarandon narrates the finished product with a grounded earthiness that contrasts with the hip posturing proffered by Susanne Vega in the splendid San Francisco Symphony American Mavericks broadcasts. In addition, actor Alec Baldwin, actress Maria Tucci, Bernstein’s daughter Jamie and Schuyler Chapin, the former New York City cultural commissioner and record producer, read the correspondence and comments.

Judging from a pre-release CD of the first program “Bernstein: The Early Years,” listeners have much to look forward to.

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918, Bernstein the man, educator and musician constantly communicated what gay composer John Corigliano terms an “intense joy in being alive.” Inheriting a classic Jewish love and respect for learning—his father believed that education was the solution to the ills of the world—his mind was constantly seeking new areas of exploration, the fruits of which were reflected in his music, conducting and teaching. While the series amply illuminates his achievements, it remains to be seen to what extent it will discuss his bisexuality and progressive dependence upon cigarettes, alcohol and harder drugs.

In 1937, while still a student at Harvard, Bernstein met Aaron Copland at a concert. Surprised by Copland’s warmth and accessibility, he immediately struck up a friendship. A year later, Copland invited him to visit. Promising to teach his future protégé everything he knew, Copland helped welcome him into a musical circle that included Marc Blitzstein, William Schumann, Roy Harris and Paul Bowles. To this mix was soon added Adolph Green, Bernstein first roommate after Harvard, and Serge Koussevitsky, his musical godfather of sorts. That some of these men were either Jewish, homosexual or both certainly contributed to the group’s camaraderie.

To accompany the radio series, Deutsche Grammophon has just released “Leonard Bernstein: An American Life,” a two-CD set featuring music heard in the documentaries. Excerpts of Bernstein conducting his own compositions are complemented by him tackling Ives, Tchaikovsky, Copland, Mahler, Hindemith and Britten. While the only works represented in their entirety are Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” (originally part of his Third Symphony) and Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” there are two delicious bonuses in the form of performances by Sarah Vaughan (“I Feel Pretty”) and the Oscar Peterson Trio (“Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story.” Sony’s “Leonard Bernstein: A Total Embrace,” a three-CD set issued last year offers complementary fare.

Promising greater satisfaction is Kultur International Films’ just-released DVD of Bernstein’s groundbreaking New York Philharmonic “Young People’s Concerts” promise even greater satisfactions. Equally important is the recent “Chichester Psalms,” conducted by Bernstein protégé Marin Alsop (Naxos), and May’s five multi-disc “Bernstein Edition” boxes from DG. The six-CD set “The Americans: Complete Recordings on Deutsches Grammophon” offers all of Bernstein’s later recordings of works by American composers, including the first release of Lukas Foss’ “Song of Songs.” Gay composers include Barber, Copland, Del Tredici and Rorem, the last two most definitely alive and kicking.

Kicking is the operative term for Harmonia Mundi’s October release of Bernstein’s controversial “Mass” (1971), performed by Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester. Currently available in standard CD format, a January 2005 release in SACD hybrid surround-sound offers the first in-home opportunity to experience a work that uses quadraphonic tape segments, multiple choirs, and numerous soloists in sound closest to that experienced live.

Nagano and the Northern-California based Pacific Mozart Ensemble bring authentic flavor and verve to the performance, but favored Bernstein tenor Jerry Hadley’s major contribution as the Celebrant suffers from vocal wear, incipient wobble on high, and a marked lack of freshness. What nonetheless emerge in bold relief are Bernstein’s sense of daring and the considerable beauty of the score.

Exploring darkness and light in manners that parallel Mahler’s transcendent journeys from despair to faith, Bernstein’s constant textual references to social issues seem if anything more relevant today than in 1971. “What is real, Lord, I don’t know” and “Half the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction” might as well be commentary on today’s political scene. (May the line “You may plan to rule forever but you never do somehow” prove prophetic). With digs at imperialism, birth control, destruction of species and organized religion, all that’s missing is a reference to priestly child abuse to make “Mass” copy for tonight’s 6 o’clock news.

It still seems unsettling to hear the Jets in “West Side Story” dashing through the Cathedral, throwing taunts that might easily send the Pope running for cover, but America’s unholy mix of fundamentalism, politics and Hollywood production values reveal Bernstein’s “Mass” as more prescient than profane. If only some of Bernstein’s protégés were as daring in matters political, sexual and racial.

Listen to Bernstein’s stunning 1977 “Songfest,” which includes both an anti-racist duet juxtaposing Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America” with June Jordan’s “Okay ‘Negroes’” and a gorgeous bass solo tribute to love between two men set to the words of Walt Whitman. If you can get your hands on the New York Philharmonic’s 10-disc “Bernstein LIVE” set, by all means do so. Then reflect on the glories of “West Side Story,” the gay glitter of “Candide,” the pizzazz of “On the Town” and the revelations offered by “Leonard Bernstein: An American Life” to gain insight to how much we owe the man.



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