This post is primarily about Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story." You can read about Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo & Juliet, here.
Also on the program is a brand-new work no one's ever heard before, making it a responsibility for the performers – who can't just turn to a recording to hear “how it goes” – as well as the listeners. I wrote a little about Jeremy Gill and the whole idea of being a living composer (“making a living” is more than just “being alive”) in yesterday's post which you can read here.
But a word about our soloist, Christopher Grymes, the clarinetist for whom Jeremy Gill composed his Notturno concertante. You can read Mr. Grymes' biography here.
In her column, Art & Soul, Ellen Hughes wrote about the up-coming concert.
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Gill calls [Christopher Grymes] an incredibly conscientious musician. 'He has the kind of musical personality that can make the work uniquely his own. With Chris and Stuart, my piece couldn't be in better hands.'
Grymes has had the clarinet part since May. 'I really like it, but I won't know what it sounds like until I hear it with the full orchestra,' he said. 'It's written beautifully for the clarinet.' He's memorized his part, which is quite a feat. 'It's easier when it's been memorized. I think it uses a different area of the brain. It's more “in the moment.” I've had to develop and broaden my technique, to get so much more athletic at the top range of the instrument than ever before,' he added.
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|Leonard Bernstein, conductor!|
Chances are good that more people are familiar with music from his West Side Story than might know any of the works by Bernstein's contemporaries and colleagues combined, composers whose works he conducted and often premiered.
West Side Story became a topic for discussion in 1949, though it wasn't until the mid-50s it began to take shape, a musical that takes Shakespeare's immortal couple, the “star-cross'd lovers” Romeo and Juliet, and translated them into modern Manhattan, placing them on the Upper West Side with feuding gangs – the Sharks and the Jets – replacing the feuding families of the Montagues and the Capulets.
Ironically, much of this neighborhood was leveled in the early-60s to build what would become Lincoln Center, the new home of more than just the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein was named the philharmonic's music director in 1957, the same year West Side Story received its world premiere on Broadway.
Dance was a major part of the show – and whether you've seen the show or the movie based on it, you get a sense of how challenging the choreography is and how integral it is to the show itself. So it seemed natural that Bernstein should take some of the “best tunes” and turn them into a suite just as any composer would do with a stage work.
Oddly, though, the suite from West Side Story isn't that kind of a suite, a collection of hummable excerpts meant to bring music from the theater into the concert hall so more people would become familiar with it, creating a different and longer shelf-life compared to those who might only experience it on the stage.
Bernstein chose what dance numbers and songs he wanted for this concert work and gave it to his colleagues Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal to arrange and orchestrate. He called them “symphonic” dances not just because they were now to be played by a symphony orchestra but because, in the original sense of “symphonic,” they are developed beyond just being presented as charming tunes. They recreate the dramatic tension, perhaps, but also expand and evolve along lines the Broadway stage didn't have time for. Plus, it's basically in four parts, not quite movements, with a variety of moods and tempos, much like a four-movement symphony.
Here's a performance by Bernstein protege Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting the San Francisco Symphony at a Carnegie Hall concert in 2008:
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Leonard Bernstein was a talented pianist, often conducting concertos from the keyboard (before it was considered “historically informed”) and he may well have been one of the first great “cross-over artists” between classical music and the worlds of pop and jazz.
He was dynamic, brash, opinionated and often flamboyant and arrogant but certainly never bland. He brought us Mahler when nobody really listened to Mahler and he conducted the latest in new music whether it was the complex Elliott Carter or the complete opposite of complexity in John Cage and Earl Brown.
It may seem surprising to those of us who experienced the force of nature that was Leonard Bernstein then that, according to friends and family, he was not always the secure, flamboyantly self-confident artist we would've thought, one who had fame, fortune and an immense and seemingly unending talent.
Defining the idea of “eclectic,” drawing from classical traditions, from jazz and pop as well as Jewish music, both sacred and secular, Bernstein created a musical language that, despite its eclecticism, always sounded to me like Bernstein, the man who created “West Side Story” or “Chichester Psalms” or his wild and crazy “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” or the Kaddish Symphony of 1963.
But deep down, while he conducted the newest works of the major composers of the day, he felt the pressure of not being one of them himself, not being accepted by them as part of a “big boys' club” as one family member expressed it in a special program broadcast on Public Radio, Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, an 11-part series narrated by Susan Sarandon. “The series culminates with a look at Bernstein's legacy: his final days are colored by his own sense of failure.”
He strove to write “serious” music that was complex and “original” but these pieces not only failed with the general audiences, it was not taken seriously by the composers he hoped most to “impress.” Inevitably, it led to a great amount of frustration and a creative roadblock, a tragedy, I thought, for a man who could not see how “original” something like West Side Story was, how sincere “Chichester Psalms” was or how brilliant Candide was (despite its tortured history of failure and revision, enough to rival Beethoven's Fidelio).
|Bernstein in 1955|
And yet music from West Side Story and Candide – both written before he was 40 – appear regularly in “serious” concert halls alongside the great composers he championed as a conductor – and more frequently, no doubt, than most of those composers he'd hoped to impress. Certainly, when it opened in 1957, there was never a musical like West Side Story and there's never been another one like it since.
- Dick Strawser