By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Almost everywhere I turned this past week, I saw some example of the legacy of Leonard Bernstein, the irreplaceable composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, writer, lecturer, intellectual, Dionysian force of life who conquered American music and ultimately the world. He’s been gone nearly 23 years now and we still miss him; we still feel the huge gap that his passing left in 1990.
I was fortunate enough to have interviewed Bernstein for the LA Daily News and Musical America a few days before his 65th birthday in 1983 – and I will always remember the gravelly bullfrog voice, the shock of white hair, the charismatic smile, the way he would talk in eloquent complete sentences that didn’t need editing, the ever-present cigarettes that he couldn’t stop smoking and that would eventually kill him before his time.
Fortunately, his disciples carry on, some of whom have achieved greatness on their own terms. One of them is Michael Tilson Thomas, who stopped by Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night to remind us – perhaps without meaning to – that one of Bernstein’s many legacies was the Mahler boom of the 1960s, which turned out to be permanent. Tilson Thomas, of course, has since gone on to become a world-class Mahlerian with no need to hang on to the coattails of Bernstein.
True, Tilson Thomas’s mostly thrilling rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic that night – like his 2004 recording in San Francisco – clearly took its starting point from Lenny’s own subjective, highly-charged emotional-intellectual point of view, capable of giving a climax a big gust of sudden energy, unafraid to indulge in the occasional exaggerated use of the brakes (there was a whopper of a slowdown late in the Scherzo, the only one that seemed really off-the-wall). Like Lenny, he also runs through Mahler’s stop sign at a crucial point in the first movement (two measures after 18, if you want to look it up). Hard as it is for some of us to believe, Tilson Thomas is the same age now (68) as Bernstein was when he recorded his last Mahler 2 in 1987 – only a month younger, actually.
These days, though, Tilson Thomas is in a mostly different space, not quite as volatile as his old mentor was at his age. He has matured into a profoundly searching Mahlerian, probing deeply into the more introspective passages and finding the beauty, suspense and in the end, the grandeur of the music while still managing to hold its massive structure together. His gestures only occasionally harken back to the flamboyance of his youth. He holds back, choosing his spots, always in complete control.
There were no special sonic effects for this performance as there have been in past Mahler Seconds here; the outboard soloists were backstage, not in the towers surrounding the Bowl. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was lovely and sustained in the fourth movement, soprano Keira Duffy slightly out of tune at first but eventually pleasing in the fifth. A nasty helicopter flew over during the quietest part (of course) in the finale – and I felt a chilling flashback to the night 28 years ago when Tilson Thomas stalked off the stage in the middle of a performance of the Mahler Eighth when another hovering `copter drowned out the music. But Tilson Thomas knew what to do this time; he found a convenient pause and calmly stopped the orchestra until the nuisance flew by.
On Saturday night, there were more Bernstein disciples in town – one of them was his daughter Jamie, another was his former student and assistant conductor Michael Barrett – and they were collaborating
with the young artists program SongFest at the outdoor Grand Performances at California Plaza series in downtown L.A. There couldn’t have been a more opportune Bernstein piece for SongFest to perform than Songfest, a major, little-known 12-movement song cycle from 1976-77 that I have not heard locally since Bernstein himself conducted it at the Bowl in 1982.
Songfest is a serious, sophisticated set of art songs with something to say, yet also loaded with the composer’s exuberant, vernacular social and musical influences, distributed into discrete packages. The twelve-tone bebop of “The Pennycandystore Beyond the El” and the Latin fire of Julia de Burgos’s eponymous poem are juxtaposed with things like the heartfelt ballad with music salvaged from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, “To What You Said,” the grandiose proclamation of “Israfel” at the close or its parodic opposite, “To The Poem,” at the beginning.
Composer/pianist John Musto made a two-piano transcription of Songfest around 1998 for the Bernstein office, but it hadn’t been performed at all until Saturday (upon the suggestion of Barrett, a percussion part was sparingly added). The transcription strips Bernstein’s elaborate orchestrations down to a stark skeleton – as heard through somewhat tubby amplification over the tense rumblings and noises of the urban outdoors. Yet Lenny’s personal voice and jagged rhythms survived the transition, still coming through strongly – and led with idiomatic skill by Barrett, the six young singers coped well, if sometimes a bit stridently, with the eclectic styles on display. Jamie Bernstein provided scripted, often enlightening narration in between clusters of the songs, yet the presentation might have been even more effective if the talk had been condensed and placed before the music, allowing the cycle to be played straight through.
After the break, with the Overture to Candide for piano-four-hands (played by Barrett and Musto) setting the tone, everyone settled into a collection of Bernstein theatre songs – and not always the predictable ones, choosing things like the deliciously wicked, Gilbert-and-Sullivan-tinged “Auto-da-fe” scene from Candide and a sentimental outtake from Peter Pan, “Dream With Me.” From this program, one could get a pretty good, multi-faceted overview of Bernstein the composer of concert songs and Bernstein the Broadway baby.
Another branch of Bernstein’s lasting place in American music extends toward jazz where, to what I’m sure would have been his delight, some of his songs have permanently cemented themselves in the repertoire. A Bernstein song, “Somewhere,” has become the title and centerpiece of the newest album (ECM) by the great, long-lasting Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette “Standards Trio” – and no ordinary treatment of West Side Story’s ballad of yearning for another world is this. About six minutes into a rather free, ballad-tempo fantasy on the famous theme, the trio settles into a two-chord vamp pattern which Jarrett calls “Everywhere.” On and on they go like an unstoppable stream-of-consciousness jam band, DeJohnette rolling around on the tom-toms like a conguero, until they finally run out of steam at the 19 1/2 minute mark. Following that display is another West Side Story song, “Tonight,” where the band goes on a joyous uptempo spree. Bernstein’s standards share the disc with some other perennials from long ago like “Stars Fell On Alabama,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “I Thought About You.” Jarrett has a habit of keeping many of his live recordings with the trio in the cooler for awhile – this one dates from 2009 in Lucerne – and it is as if the music has aged and ripened into a fine-tasting wine.