Serge Koussevitsky, Leonard Bernstein’s mentor, was on the podium conducting the first symphony by the “new young Soviet composer” Dmitri Shostakovich in the CBS radio Sunday afternoon broadcast of the New York Philharmonic when, in the middle of the first movement, none other than famed NY correspondent John Charles Daly broke in with the news of Pearl Harbor. The Japs bombed the naval base at Pearl twice that morning, first at 8am Hawaii time, then again at 9:30am…then went on that same day to bomb the fuck out of Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma, Guam…
In 1988, I brought a recording of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp to Leonard Bernstein’s country home in Fairfield, Connecticut. It was a rare event to have dinner with him and no one else. After dinner, I asked if he would be willing to hear something I had discovered and found particularly interesting.
I played the first movement of the symphony. Bernstein only knew that it was a symphony and therefore might have expected it to be in four movements. After intently listening to the twelve-minute movement, he had no idea who the composer was, but he liked the music enough to ask to hear the second movement. And so it went, after each movement I gave him a chance to beg off. The symphony’s third movement—its emotional climax—inspired him to jump to the piano and repeat its opening motif and the devastating substitution in its harmonic structure that happens twenty seconds into it. After the last movement, I told him who had composed it. I also told him that though the piece was completed in 1952, its concert premiere did not take place until 1972, fifteen years after the composer’s death.
On first hearing, Bernstein thought the symphony should have ended with the third movement, which would have made it a very tragic symphony indeed. I suspect he heard it in terms of Mahler, which is appropriate enough. He had not predicted—or perhaps wanted—its upbeat finale that takes the gentle second theme of the first movement and transforms it into a positive march, albeit with a dark warning before its conclusion.
Be that as it may…I am sure that he would have turned his attention to Korngold had he not passed away in 1990. Ironically, one of his mentors, Dimitri Mitroupoulos, had stated in 1959 that he had finally found “the perfect modern work” and planned to perform the Korngold the next season with the New York Philharmonic, but his death intervened.
from For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening
by John Mauceri (Knopf, 2019)
“Despite his larger-than-life personality and overtly visceral podium manner, [Bernstein] became a master conductor only in the last decade and a half of his life when his conducting style changed and he found a technical physicality that matched his intense musical vision. Simply put, he relied on his baton and hands instead of using his entire body as a beating tool. He focused his music-making. Even Leonard Bernstein, charisma notwithstanding, had to learn the physical art of conducting.”
Founder and Director
The Conductors’ Institute
Betty Comden with Lenny in the apartment he shared with Adolph Green, circa 1941. Console yourself with this hot pic, people, till I come back and flesh out this posting.
Stephen Maddock, CEO of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who manages to insert the word Gesamtkunstwerk into all his conversations, lets the flame of my heart have a go at Leonard Bernstein.
My bonny John at 7:55: “The music is of such importance it actually unlocks some of the questions as to what people are meant to be doing and thinking on stage. I’ve done West Side Story a lo’, I’ve done a few complete productions of it and whenever you are unsure of how to turn something dramatically you look in the score and the subito or the hairpin will actually give you the direction of what’s happening on the stage in every bar.”
John honey, there are these things musicals have called books…
And at 5:45: “He was writing these musicals to make some money… Because, you know, he had a wife and she wanted to live in a certain amount of style and he wanted, uh, some kind of security and…between 1943 with Oklahoma and 1965, 68, you have a fifteen-year period [sic] when there was greaaat money to be made on the Broadway stage, and he made no secret about it, you know… He wrote Wonderful Town in three weeks because he wanted to cash in…”
If I seemed sad as you drove away today it was not because I felt in any way deserted but because I was left alone to face myself and this whole bloody mess which is our “connubial” life. I’ve done a lot of thinking and have decided that it’s not such a mess after all.
First: we are not committed to a life sentence—nothing is really irrevocable, not even marriage (though I used to think so).
Second: you are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?
Third: I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar. (I happen to love you very much—this may be a disease and if it is what better cure?) It may be difficult but no more so than the “status quo” which exists now—at the moment you are not yourself and this produces painful barriers and tensions for both of us—let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!
As for me—once you are rid of tensions I’m sure my own will disappear. A companionship will grow which probably no one else may be able to offer you. The feelings you have for me will be clearer and easier to express—our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect. Why not have them?
I know now too that I need to work. It is a very important part of me and I feel incomplete without it. I may want to do something about it soon. I am used to an active life, and then there is that old ego problem.
We may have gotten married too soon and yet we needed to get married and we’ve not made a mistake. It is good for us even if we suffer now and make each other miserable—we will both grow up some day and be strong and unafraid either together or apart—after all we are both more important as individuals than a “marriage” is.
In any case my dearest darling ape, let’s give it a whirl. There’ll be crisis (?) from time to time but that doesn’t scare me any more. And let’s relax in the knowledge that neither of us is perfect and forget about being HUSBAND AND WIFE in such strained capital letters, it’s not that awful!
There’s a lot else I’ve got to say but the pill has overpowered me. I’ll write again soon. My wish for the week is that you come back guiltless and happy.
from The Leonard Bernstein Letters
edited by Nigel Simeone
Yale University Press, 2013
Behold the worst review my bonny John ever got and I cherish it because it’s so on the money. But first things first. Samuel Barber completed this Violin Concerto in 1939; a work in three movements, it lasts about 22 minutes. I’ve got this classic 1964 recording and it’s one of my yummier ones.
From Bachtrack: Exaggeration and Disinterest Mar John Wilson’s CBSO Programme
Simon Cummings, 08 April 2019. Great composers—or, rather, their greatest compositions—have a tendency to be able to shine through less than ideal performances. This was the situation that faced us in Symphony Hall last Saturday, though it’s important to stress that the root cause lay not with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, or their Chorus, or with either of the evening’s two soloists, but with conductor John Wilson.
Wilson’s approach to all three works on the programme could be summarised as ‘filmic’. It was as if each piece wasn’t quite adequate on its own terms but needed to be given the kind of superficial gloss that might make it suitable for Hollywood. The resulting effect of this was two-fold: exaggeration of the works’ more obviously lyrical or bombastic high points, and a kind of disinterested flattening of their less show-stopping sequences.
Thus, the contrasting episodes of Copland’s Appalachian Spring felt less like components of a single, overarching continuity than the vagaries of a narrative that kept changing its mind. At its most relaxed, as in the deliciously sleepy, dawn- and dusk-like music with which the works begins and ends, Wilson seemed to have little idea what to do, allowing its inherent prettiness to sound with indifference to pacing, shape and nuance. Only when the material became conspicuously excited did Wilson do the same, leading to a more appealing rendition of the assorted Allegro sections, which were lively and fun. (It’s interesting to note that Symphony Hall’s renowned acoustics, supposedly good for everything, audibly struggle when presented with small orchestras performing tight, crisp rhythms such as those in the Copland, on this occasion making the CBSO sound more than a little swamped.) But in hindsight these only made it more apparent how flat was the rest of the work, with clunky gear changes and a weak sense of connection.
The nature of the material in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto played much more into Wilson’s wheelhouse. The lyrical first two movements contain much that is redolent of silent film scores, which therefore suited the cinematic treatment they received. The sweetness in the music often felt rather cloying and over-earnest—where Copland had been likeable, Barber seemed to be spending all his time desperately trying to get us to like him–but the sense of dialogue between soloist James Ehnes and the orchestra, clearly heard here as equals, was highly engaging.
The Violin Concerto is a problematic work at the best of times, due to its weird structural combination of two emotionally-charged movements followed by an evidently bolted-on presto finale that appears to stem more from a desire to satisfy the demands of the original violinist than from the same creative impulse as the rest of the work. Yet on this occasion, Ehnes’ enthusiasm in the finale was a huge relief, his breakneck fingerwork rising above the robotic pulse laid down by Wilson. Best of all, though, was Ehnes’ even more unstoppable encore, a performance of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata no.3 that took real risks, resulting in such nail-biting excitement that the concerto was almost immediately forgotten.
For all the issues that had manifested in the Copland and Barber, nothing and no-one can stand in the way of the juggernaut that is Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Wilson’s tendency to exaggeration was matched by Walton’s own overblown response to Osbert Sitwell’s libretto. To stunning effect, particularly in the first half of the work: testifying again that the devil has the best tunes, the combination of orchestra and chorus (who, on this occasion, augmented by the University of Birmingham Voices, were simply enormous) during Belshazzar’s unbound, sacrilegious revelries was an absolute riot and hugely involving. Considering the downfall that we all knew was coming next, one almost felt guilty for enjoying it so much.
Bass-baritone Božidar Smiljanić was by turns mesmerising, moving and borderline prophetic as soloist. His take on the introduction to Babylon was masterful, moving abruptly from proudly rattling off a list of valuable commodities to a stern, almost witheringly prolonged articulation of the word “slaves”, concluding with a tender lament for the “souls of men”. Likewise, the almost laughably undramatic moment when the libretto sums up almighty judgement in the wake of all the ungodly merriment in just a single sentence, Smiljanić made profound, as if he were heralding not merely the end of Belshazzar’s days but everyone’s.
Again, though, the music’s more inverted, painful episodes lacked weight, Wilson making them brisk and functional, mere lulls before the storms. When these came, they were overwhelming—how could they not be? But it was just such a shame that the most powerful moments of the concert, such as these, were for the most part in spite of John Wilson’s best efforts, rather than because of them.
I haven’t got the date for this concert but Bernstein’s hair is silvery so I’m guessing it’s from the late 80s.
Ravel described his work:
“Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.”
Bonny John conducted this very piece about two weeks ago at his old school, the Royal College of Music, and spoke about Ravel (as well as Ralph Vaughan Williams) in this podcast. He said “La Valse” is about social disintegration. O-kay…
Thanks to Mark Doran for pointing me to his posting comparing Ravel’s piano score of “La Valse” to his, Ravel’s, own orchestration. Part 2 to follow.