AUFBAU 64:16 July 31, 1998 p13
Lincoln Center Festival '98
Leonard Bernstein as "Einspringer"
--[Even] Posthumously[--in New York]
by Leonard Lehrman
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Nearly 55 years ago, Leonard Bernstein, at 26, jumped in for an ailing Bruno Walter and electrified New York Philharmonic audiences by conducting an entire program without a rehearsal and without a score in front of him. Broadcast nationally, it was the first professional appearance at the start of a seven-pronged career as composer, conductor, pianist, accompanist, author, commentator, and teacher--any prong of which contained enough achievements to have made a single human being inordinately but properly proud.
Nearly eight years after his death--from smoking--here he is jumping in again, or at least becoming the main event, dominating the Lincoln Center Festival, when international politics prevented the Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion from making it to the festival. Bernstein was the focus of two concerts and 31/2 symposia--the half being on Gustav Mahler and Charles Ives, "two composers whose work Leonard Bernstein honored as a composer and championed as a conductor."
The three full Bernstein symposia, all soon to be available on the Internet at LeonardBernstein.com , were sporadically fascinating, as were the two concerts, the latter presided over by Bernstein Estate Musical Advisor Michael Barrett (in "The Unknown Bernstein") and Eos Orchestra Conductor & Artistic Director Jonathan Sheffer (in "Literally: Bernstein").
Sheffer moderated the first symposium, on Bernstein's collaborators, in which Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim were participants. Sondheim related how he, at 26, had learned so much, especially variety of phrase-lengths, from Bernstein.
In the symposium on Bernstein's education, moderated by his son Alexander (himself an educator and president of the Bernstein Education Through the Arts [BETA] Fund), fellow student Lukas Foss told of performing the piano part in Bernstein's Symphony #2 The Age of Anxiety and inquiring as to whether it could be conducted from the piano. "No, it's impossible," said the composer, "so of course you must do it!"--which Foss proceeded to do, in Rome, Buffalo, and elsewhere, but eventually stopped, confining himself (in this work at least) to the piano or the podium alone, not wanting to be viewed as a "show-off."
In answer to a question as to whether Bernstein had ever taken theater courses, Jonathan Sheffer noted that "at Harvard one learned theater by doing it." Bernstein composed music for two Greek plays, one of which will be given a performance by Eos next January, for the first time in 60 years. He also conducted and (co-)directed the highly successful Boston premiere of The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein, who later became the godfather of his first daughter, Jamie. Thirty years later, when learning of the second Boston production of Cradle, Bernstein remarked: "Well, I'm glad somebody at Harvard still has taste!"
As Jamie noted in the third symposium, on the televised Young People's Concerts and the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, she was part of the audience at both: "When I went to Harvard, Dad followed me there!" In fact, it was in attendance at a Harvard event in memory of Blitzstein, December 5, 1970, that Bernstein was first approached by Professor Harry Levin (who had been a tutor and mentor in his undergraduate days) about becoming Norton Lecturer.
"Those were good lectures," Bernstein complained in January 1974, after their critical reception had been less than warm. Anthony Tommasini's New York Times article praising them 25 years later as having presciently predicted the return of tonality to the mainstream of serious music was applauded by Jamie appreciatively as at long last "vindication" of her father. And the influence of the father on the daughter as composer? "I always had the feeling he was my biggest fan," though getting her own stuff organized and out of the drawer onto the concert stage is a task for the future: "I'm not a classical musician.... I'm also a mother." (Fellow panelist Mary Rodgers Guettel, the daughter of Richard Rodgers and the composer herself of Once Upon a Mattress, The Mad Show, and Three to Make Music, and mother of five, when asked to respond to the same question put it off to what one hopes will be a future symposium on her father--her son Adam will have a 10-minute opera premiered by Eos next June.)
Sorting through Bernstein's "composer's trunk," Michael Barrett strung together an attractive piano suite of 6 miniatures and a set of occasional pieces and songs cut from On the Town, West Side Story and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, performed by Amy Burton and three other regulars from his New York Festival of Song. Particularly attractive were the 1987 "My Baby's Baby," on the composer's first grandchild, then still in the womb, and the 1982 "Play No More," on a text (mis?)attributed to Shakespeare.
The highlight of the "Unknown Bernstein" concert was the playing of flutist Paula Robison, in a chamber version of Halil (written in honor of the memory of Yadin Tananbaum, a 19-year-old Israeli flutist killed at Sinai), and especially a duet with cellist Carter Brey. Said duet, the 1989 "Variations on an Octatonic Scale," was written originally for recorder and cello, but didn't quite fit either instrument; nevertheless, the duo ingeniously made it work--the flutist lending a hand, literally, to help out on one of the cello chords.
After all the symposia, the most successful Bernstein work of the Festival, and in many ways the best concert work he ever wrote, was his 1954 Serenade after Plato's Symposium. Jonathan Sheffer's program notes characterized Plato's work as a discussion of love, "particularly... homosexual love." But it is much more than that. As Ronald B. Levinson noted in his In Defense of Plato, published by Harvard University Press the year before Serenade was written: Different ways of loving are not seen (by Plato) as mutually exclusive, and none is condemned. Bernstein himself, now claimed as a partisan of gay liberation, was in fact bisexual. The fourth of his six Norton lectures takes on special significance here, titled as it was, "The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity."
The finale of Serenade segues from the stern Socrates to the rollicking, partying, Dionysian Alcibiades--whose name for some reason did not appear on the Lincoln Center program. Notwithstanding the omission, and some slight intonation difficulties in the Aristophanes movement, the orchestra played well, with 26-year-old Anne Akiko Meyers a congenial violin soloist. Four excerpts from the 1977 12-song cycle Songfest preceded Serenade, with Philip Cutlip, Angelina Reaux, and Richard Bernstein as dynamic soloists.
The men returned as soloists in 4 of the 11 movements in the final work of the evening: the 1974 ballet Dybbuk. In many ways this is Bernstein's most Jewish work, derived from Ansky's classic and obsessed with kabbalistic gematria (numerology) much like its protagonist. Part of it, like the six variations in the section called "Alchemy," are, on a small scale, as intricately intriguing as anything Bernstein ever wrote. Other parts, like the Maidens' Dance, fall back on a pre-Stravinskian modality so as almost to recall Rimsky-Korsakov. (Is it a coincidence that the first piece Bernstein ever conducted with orchestra was Scheherezade?) Unfortunately, the piece does not fully hold up as a concert work apart from the ballet it was written to accompany. But Sheffer and the Eos gave it a good try. One looks forward to their future efforts.
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