Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
(on the assassination of John F. Kennedy)
Paul de Hueck; courtesy of Leonard Bernstein Office Inc.
West Side Story (1957)
“Any great work of art … revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world — the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”
“The twentieth century has been a badly written drama from the beginning. The opposite of a Greek drama. Act one: Greed and hypocrisy leading to a genocidal world war, a boom, a crash, totalitarianism. Act two: Greed and hypocrisy leading to a genocidal world war, a boom, a crash, totalitarianism. Act three: Greed and hypocrisy … I don’t dare continue.”
— Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein was born and raised in Lawrence, Mass., and educated in public schools (including Boston Latin). He was a music major at Harvard, a highly skilled pianist (briefly an accompanist for the Harvard Glee Club), and a 1939 cum laude graduate. He continued his studies at the Curtis Institute with Fritz Reiner and others.
His musical career developed rapidly. His friendships with Dmitri Mitropoulos and Aaron Copland led to summer studies at Tanglewood with Serge Koussevitzky. Appointed as assistant conductor to Artur Rodzinski of the New York Philharmonic, he found national fame on November 14, 1943, when guest conductor Bruno Walter fell ill with the flu. Bernstein had to step in at the last minute. He conducted the nationally broadcast concert without any rehearsal, to significant critical acclaim. Guest appearances with U.S. orchestras followed, and his international career — as conductor, pianist, and composer — began to grow.
Bernstein’s popular appeal also grew through a series of lectures on the CBS show “Omnibus” and later programs with ABC and NBC that covered jazz, opera, musical theater, and modern music. He recorded 53 “Young People’s Concerts” for CBS, also to great critical acclaim, and his “Humor in Music” program won an Emmy.
Maestro Robert Page
At Bernstein’s request, Page arranged pieces from Candide for chorus. Page has been guest conductor twice for the Providence Singers, in 2004 and 2011.
In 1957 — about the time West Side Story and Candide were premiered — Bernstein was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, succeeding Mitropoulos. Among his projects was the first complete recording of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, which helped drive renewed interest in Mahler’s work. He was also an advocate for U.S. composers, including Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and David Diamond. He also made a recording, Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein, a 1961 collaboration with composer and pianist Dave Brubeck.
In 1943, Bernstein composed Seven Anniversaries, a group of pieces for piano solo, each of which celebrated a different person in his life. He returned to that concept several times throughout his creative life — Four Anniversaries (1948), Five Anniversaries (1948-51), Two Anniversaries (1965), and Thirteen Anniversaries (1988). He wrote 31 movements in all, including pieces for Serge Koussevitzky, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, David Diamond, and Stephen Sondheim. Pianist Patrice Newman will perform three of those Anniversary pieces in these concerts: For Felicia Montealegre (Bernstein’s wife), For Johnny Mehegan (jazz pianist, arranger, teacher at Juilliard and Yale), and For Stephen Sondheim.
Although he stepped down as music director in 1969, Bernstein continued to appear with the New York Philharmonic frequently until his death in 1990. He remained very active and productive, continuing his composition, international conducting, recordings, and involvement with issues of social activism.
West Side Story (Medley)
Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, conception by Jerome Robbins
West Side Story “revives and readapts” William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Capulets and Montagues become Jets and Sharks, rival street gangs of the mid-20th century. The balcony scene — “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” — becomes a fire escape outside Maria’s bedroom (“Tonight, tonight, won’t be like any night. Tonight there will be no morning star.”) The retold story of young lovers doomed by social pathologies beyond their control is steeped in street-wise lyrics, bright melodic lines, and jazzy rhythms. It takes place on the upper West Side of Manhattan in a neighborhood that, ironically, would soon be bulldozed to make way for Lincoln Center.
West Side Story was an immediate critical and box office success when it opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957. Critics sensed something new and different in Stephen Sondheim’s “hard-edged” lyrics, Bernstein’s rangy music, and the overall spirit of the production. Writing in the New York Daily News on September 27, 1957, John Chapman said:
The American theatre took a venturesome forward step ... at the Winter Garden last evening. This is a bold new kind of musical theatre — a juke-box Manhattan opera. It is, to me, extraordinarily exciting ... the manner of telling the story is a provocative and artful blend of music, dance, and plot — and the music and the dancing are superb. In [the score], there is the drive, the bounce, the restlessness, and the sweetness of our town. It takes up the American musical idiom where it was left when George Gershwin died. It is fascinatingly tricky and melodically beguiling, and it marks the progression of an admirable composer ...
West Side Story: Choral Suite, Mac Huff’s medley of songs from the show, includes:
- Something’s Coming — Tony, a former Jet, is recruited to rejoin the gang by Riff, its leader. Tony senses something big is around the corner.
- Tonight — Tony, a Jet, and Maria, sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, first profess their love for each other.
- Maria — Bernardo had separated Tony and his sister at the dance and sent Maria home. Tony, lovestruck, later wanders the streets, finds Maria’s building, and serenades her.
- One Hand, One Heart — Tony arrives at the bridal shop where Maria works. He agrees to stop the impending fight between the gangs. Tony and Maria sing of their wedding dreams.
- I Feel Pretty — Maria daydreams about meeting Tony.
- Cool — At Doc’s Drug Store, the Jets are waiting to negotiate weaponry for the impending rumble with the Sharks.
- America — Girls of the Sharks sing of differences between life in Puerto Rico and the United States. Anita defends America; Rosalia is wistful about Puerto Rico.
- Somewhere — Maria learns that Tony has killed Bernardo. She is hurt and outraged, but their young love survives. They plan to run away together, searching for a dreamlike place of peace.
Choral arrangements by Robert Page
Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide was an immediate sensation when it was published in January 1759. Although it sold as many as 30,000 copies in 20 editions during its first year, it was promptly savaged and denounced by religious and civil authorities on grounds of blasphemy and promoting sedition. The book was burned in many of the great cities of Europe, and Voltaire himself maintained official anonymity for nearly a decade. (The book’s title page claimed it was translated from the German by “Dr. Ralph.”) In February 1929, exactly 170 years after the Grand Council of Geneva had banned it, a shipment of Candide arriving for a French class at Harvard was confiscated by U.S. Customs in Boston. “One of us happened to read it,” said the customs official. “It’s a filthy book.”
Against episodes of war, murder, slavery, prostitution, torture, disease, execution, shipwreck, earthquakes, inquisition, and other disasters, Voltaire considered the presence of evil and lampooned optimistic philosophical systems in this “best of all possible worlds.” In the musical version, Candide and his young noble friends have everything they need (“mares to ride and books to read.”) They are being instructed by Dr. Pangloss, a pedantic and relentlessly positive tutor. Pangloss finds virtuous purpose for snakes, war, and all problems of civilization, and his beautiful young charges dutifully accept what their master tells them.
Pangloss’ world view cannot fend off reality forever. War breaks out; the beautiful Cunegonde breaks Candide’s heart; despair and bitter experience take their toll. The play’s ending finds Candide and company devoting themselves to the basics of life and sustaining each other in the face of an often hostile world. (Voltaire himself, a dedicated and thoughtful gardener, concluded his novel with the “make our garden grow” philosophy.)
Making an operetta of Candide was no easy task; Candide had a complicated performance history. The original 1956 version featured a libretto by dramatist and Broadway playwright Lillian Hellman. It had a short, unsuccessful two-month run, and the libretto drew criticism as being too serious. A series of revivals followed with a new book and reworked lyrics. A 1973 “Chelsea version” omitted half of the musical numbers. After a new production in 1988 by the Scottish Opera, Bernstein himself reworked, conducted, and recorded what he called his “final revised version.” Candide overcame its initial disappointments and has become an enduring and very popular work.
The Singers will perform four numbers from Candide, arranged for chorus by Robert Page at Bernstein’s invitation:
- Best of all Possible Worlds — Introducing Dr. Pangloss, who explains that snakes were placed in the Garden of Eden to become catalysts for human salvation: “Now on to Aristotle.”
- Life is Happiness Indeed — Pangloss’ young charges believe the world is giving them everything they need, including their own physical beauty rivaled only by the rose (which is “of limited duration.”)
- This World — In his final lament, Candide, disillusioned by experience, asks, “Is this all then? This the world?”
- Make Our Garden Grow — Disabused of their naiveté, the young company closes the show by singing about their determination to focus on the business of life: baking bread, chopping wood, making their garden grow.