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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Protean Bernstein

Several years ago, I wrote liner notes for the sadly defunct CD label Dorian Recordings. Here's a sample from their 2000 release Bernstein Tribute, featuring the high-powered brass-and-percussion ensemble Proteus 7.


THE SYNCOPATED CRACKLE of a trumpet is a defining characteristic of jazz, which makes it a defining characteristic of American music. It’s the sound of Louis Armstrong; it’s also in Leonard Bernstein’s music. You hear it in the first few bars of “West Side Story”; it’s in the symphonies, the Mass – it’s a signature, and it typifies the extraordinary musical voice Bernstein achieved by assaulting the European classical-music tradition with his synthesis of American jazz.

His music, whether on the concert or Broadway stage (or in that halfway place he placed his Mass) is lyrical, punchy–and difficult to play. That’s why the combination of Bernstein’s music and Proteus 7 is so electric. Put together a group of the country’s best brass players (and one dynamic percussionist) and you have an ensemble that can tackle anything, as previous Proteus 7 recordings demonstrate. They took on the James Bond world with “For Your Ears Only” and paid a salute to the PĂ©rez Prado tradition in “Cha Cha Lounge.” Coming up in time for Hallowe’en is “Dracula,” a salute to the more creepy classics.

“We enjoyed making those discs,” says trombonist Hans Bohn, “but we’re all classically trained, so we wanted to find something that would bring those worlds together. And music by Bernstein fit the bill.”

Selections range from Broadway to the concert hall, with characteristic Bernstein wit informing everything here. Even the one original piece, Anthony DiLorenzo’s “Mostly Influential,” is forthright in acknowledging a debt. “Bernstein is one of the few composers who gives the brass a chance to let loose,” says DiLorenzo. “I wanted to write something to pay tribute to that.”

Bernstein (1918-1990) was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Russian immigrants. Early study of piano and composition eased the way into Harvard, where he studied with Walter Piston, among others. He next attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner, soon moving to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's new summer institute, Tanglewood, and studies with the BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky.

This set the stage for one of those fortuitous events that become the stuff of musical legend. In 1943, Bernstein was named assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, putting him in a position to substitute for an ailing Bruno Walter at a nationally broadcast Carnegie Hall concert late in November of that year. It was a sensational success, and prompted invitations to conduct all over the world.

As a composer, he began to straddle two worlds. He wrote his “Jeremiah” Symphony in 1943, which he successfully conducted with the New York Philharmonic and which immediately enjoyed performances around the world. At the same time, he met choreographer Jerome Robbins, who suggested the idea for the ballet “Fancy Free,” a work that then would develop into Bernstein’s first Broadway success, “On the Town.” More shows followed, but nothing would top the success of 1957's “West Side Story,” which also introduced Stephen Sondheim (as lyricist only, in this case) to Broadway.

Meanwhile, his conducting career flourished, bringing to the helm of the New York Philharmonic as music director in 1958. He made well over 200 recordings with that orchestra, as well as an acclaimed series of Young People’s Concerts that became Sunday television staples throughout the early 1960s.

Speaking of Protean, he wrote music and libretto for “Trouble in Tahiti,” a one-act opera,  in 1952 and music for the film “On the Waterfront” and the “Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)” for violin, strings and percussion in 1954.

Troubled by the Presidential assassination in 1963, he subtitled his Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish,” and dedicated it to “the Beloved Memory of John F. Kennedy.” He remained friends with the President’s widow, and eagerly accepted a commission from her on behalf of the newly built Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 1971. He subtitled his Mass a “theater piece for singers, players and dancers,” and inspired much controversy by calling for two choirs, two organs, jazz and rock bands and a celebrant who collapses in a fit of self-doubt halfway through the piece.

He was devoted both to American music, championing his friend Aaron Copland and promoting the neglected music of Charles Ives. He also helped inspire a revived interest in the music of Mahler thanks to a cycle of symphonies he conducted and recorded in the 1960s.

Even after he left the New York Philharmonic in 1969, he maintained a full schedule of conducting and teaching, working most summers at Tanglewood and regularly conducting orchestras in England, Israel, Austria and Germany, among other countries.

His final opera, “A Quiet Place,” was finished in 1983; among his other late works were “Arias and Barcarolles” for two singers and piano duet in 1988, and, the following year, a Concerto for Orchestra subtitled “Jubilee Games.”

Bernstein traveled throughout the world to promote various causes. Late in life, he made a “Journey for Peace” tour with the European Community Orchestra to Hiroshima in 1985; four years later, he conducted the “Berlin Celebration Concerts” by the crumbling Berlin Wall, with musicians from both sides of the once-divided country as well as musical representatives of the four countries that split Berlin in 1945.

A charter supporter of Amnesty International, he established the Felicia Montealegre Fund in 1987 in memory of late wife; in 1990, he won the Japan Arts Association’s Praemium Imperiale for lifetime achievement in the arts, and used the $100,000 prize to establish The Bernstein Education Through the Arts (BETA) Fund, Inc. before his death in October, 1990.

The Program

Proteus 7
Narrowing the selections wasn’t easy. Percussionist Feza Zweifel, who is responsible for many of the arrangements, spent several months listening to Bernstein’s music. “I tried to come up with material that wasn’t overplayed,” he says. “We wanted works that were accessible, classical – and that would transcribe well.”

Jerome Robbins already had the scenario for Fancy Free worked out when he met Bernstein in 1943. He wanted to create a ballet that not only was unambiguously American, but that also captured the flavor of the wartime mood. He asked to hear some of the young composer’s music and, according to Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton,

“Funny you should ask that,” Bernstein remembered saying, “because this afternoon in the Russian Tea Room I got this tune in my head and I wrote it down on a napkin.” He sang the melody. “Jerry went through the ceiling. He said, ‘That’s it, that’s what I had in mind!’ We went crazy. I began developing the theme right there in his presence ... Thus the ballet was born.”
It’s been a repertory item with ballet companies ever since, it inspired the musical “On the Town,” and it was even heard, in snippets, as background music in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” It tells the simple story of three sailors on shore leave one night in New York, who compete for the attention of three girls in a bar. The Three Dance Variations arranged by Zweifel are solo turns taken by the dancer shortly before the finale.

Anthony DiLorenzo is a prolific composer who contributed to each of the previous Proteus 7 recordings, so it was unanimously agreed that he should write something for the Bernstein disc. “I had a fantasy,” he says, “in which Bernstein is playing a late-night game of power with Gershwin and Prokofiev. They’ve met in the back room of a bar somewhere, and each of the three movements of Mostly Influential describes the game and the composers.

“The first movement, ‘Ante Up,’ is in a Prokofiev style with a touch of Bernstein. ‘3 AM Blues’ has a Gershwin flavor, but again with some Bernstein worked in. And the last movement, ‘Aces High,’ is all Bernstein.”

One of DiLorenzo’s fondest memories is of performing at Tanglewood in 1987 and 1988 with Bernstein conducting. “We did a concert that closed with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, and the response to the piece was surreal – it was unbelievable! As the very last note was dying out, there was an explosion from the audience, like a war had ended or something! And it was because of him, the rapport he had with the musicians and the audience. And shortly after that I found out that he’d nominated me for the Avery Fisher Career Grant Award, which was a wonderful surprise.”

West Side Story was a natural and unanimous selection for this album. “The music is familiar,” says Bohn, “and we’ve all played it. I asked Dean Sorenson for some ideas on new arrangements – he worked with us on ‘For Your Ears Only’ – and he wrote pieces that allowed everyone in the ensemble to have solo moments throughout the songs. For instance, he came up with the idea of the solo tuba in ‘Maria’ – who’d think of that? – and you can hear Tony DiLorenzo screaming away on his trumpet in ‘Mambo.’”

Coincidentally, one of the other Proteus 7 members had his own ideas about “West Side Story.” Charles Pillow is a multi-instrumentalist “who really likes the song ‘I Have a Love,’” says Bohn. “So he wrote some things around it and surprised us with his Suite from the West Side.” The Introduction is a short, original piece by Pillow, while Fantasy weaves together fragments of other songs as it leads into his reworking of “I Have a Love.” “Charlie is incredibly gifted,” says Zweifel. “I can’t describe what he does in this suite, but the harmonies are fantastic.”

Bernstein’s Mass premiered at the Kennedy Center on Sept. 8. 1971. With no love lost between the liberal Bernstein and manic-conservative Richard Nixon, the President avoided the concert, giving his box to the Kennedy family. Nevertheless, Nixon made sure his staff attended rehearsals, and received reports that the Latin text possibly contained “coded messages.”

Not as far as the composer was concerned. “Mass came to be because the crisis of faith is the principal crisis of our century,” wrote Bernstein. “I’ve always wanted to compose a service of one sort or another ... but it never all came together in my mind until Jacqueline Onassis asked me to write a piece dedicated to her late husband ... I suppose part of the reason that the Catholic Mass became the spinal structure – unconsciously, perhaps – must have had something to do with the Kennedys and because John F. Kennedy was America's first Catholic president. But I've always had a deep interest in Catholicism in all its aspects, its similarities and dissimilarities to Judaism as well as to other religions.”

Bernstein celebrated (and questioned) his Jewish background in other works, such as his “Jeremiah” and “Kaddish” symphonies, but notes that “the questioning of God is a time-honored Jewish tradition, based on the intimacy with God which Jews have always felt ... Mass is constantly interrupted by these thoughts: ‘Wait a minute. Just hold it a second! I have a question about that, or I do not believe that.’ All these interruptive thoughts are actually prayers in themselves, born of an immense desire to believe.”

The work shocked its audience by including electric guitars and brass bands, as well as a highly theatrical presentation that some viewed as sacrilege. But, as Bernstein wrote, the Celebrant who conducts the ritual “throughout the drama is invested by his acolytes with increasingly ornate robes and symbols which connote both an increase in the superficial formalism of his obligations and of the burden that he bears. There is a parallel increase in the resistance of his Congregants – in the sharpness and bitterness of their reactions – and in the deterioration of his own faith. At the climax of Communion, all ceremony breaks down and the Mass is shattered. It then remains for each individual on the stage to find a new seed of faith within himself through painful Meditation, enabling each individual to pass on the embrace of peace (Pax) to his neighbor. The chain of embrace grows and threads through the entire stage, ultimately with the audience and hopefully into the world outside.”

Behind the theatricality is great music, which is nicely revealed in the six selections arranged by Feza Zweifel and Douglas Richard for this disc. “A Simple Song” comes from the second of three Devotions before Mass, while “Alleluia” is the third. “Gloria Tibi” is the first section of the four-part Gloria, while “De Profundis” is the music of the Offertory, here paired with the Second Introit: “In nomine Patris” from the beginning of the piece. Among the work’s concluding sections are the “Sanctus” (“Holy! Holy! Holy!”) and “Fraction.” 

Bernstein enjoyed a close association with the Boston Symphony at the beginning and end of his conducting career, so he was delighted to honor the orchestra’s centenary in 1980 with the Divertimento, a suite of eight short movements each paying special tribute to one aspect or another of the ensemble and its roster of distinguished music directors. The piece as a whole is tied together by the playful use of the notes B and C (for Boston Centennial) throughout.

“A lot of the guys in the group are from Boston,” says Zweifel, “so it seemed all the more appropriate to choose this work. I’ve played it a few times with the Cleveland Orchestra and thought, wow! What a great piece!”

He chose three of the more brass-appropriate movements, beginning with the appropriately titled “Sennets and Tuckets,” which refers to the trumpet calls used to signal the entrances and exits of actors from Shakespeare’s time.

The lovely “Waltz” salutes Serge Koussevitzky’s affinity for the music of Tchaikovsky, paying special tribute to the slow movement from the “Pathetique” Symphony with a waltz in 7/8 time. The last movement, “March,” subtitled “The BSO Forever,” spins themes from “Sennets and Tuckets” into a send-up of Johann Strauss’s “Radetzky March,” a Boston Pops favorite.

“The Wrong Note Rag was the last thing we recorded at a seven-day session,” says Zweifel, “and I didn’t know if we could do it. But we put it down in half an hour. The arrangement was good, everyone was pumped up – I think we have a winner here.” The song comes from the show “Wonderful Town,” one of several numbers Bernstein wrote for that show to give the feeling of vintage Manhattan – in this case, the song is supposed to be a vaudeville showpiece that dates from the ’teens. Rodney S. Miller’s arrangement gives a good sense of the near-nonsense lyric sung by the two Sherwood sisters.

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