His birthday was Sunday…whoa oh ohhh…
Oh, hello! Apologies, I was lost in a reverie of rewriting that classic Bangles song. Yesterday would have been legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 95th birthday. In the words of the WQXR Blog, he still “looms large over classical music, remembered both for his extroverted conducting style and for his vibrant, culturally omnivorous off-stage persona, documented in countless interviews, TV appearances and public talks.”
My first exposures to Bernstein began, as usual, when I didn’t know it. In ninth grade my wonderful choral music teacher took us to see West Side Story. It was love at first note. Bernstein’s score manages to capture every emotion exuded in the star-crossed tale: love, rivalry, nationalism, loss, get-your-mambo-shoes-on. I am in awe of the gift composers possess, and LB is certainly no exception. EVERYONE knows at least a little something from West Side Story. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.
My next exposure unaware was a couple of years later and in a far less erudite fashion. My best friend and I decided it would behoove us (academically, natch) to memorize every lyric to R.E.M.’s raucous caveat “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. Come on, you know the line: “blah blah blah blah blah LEO-NARD BERN-STEIN!” I figured that if Michael Stipe, whom I revered, was including That Name in That Song, it was worth checking into. Thus, here I am these years later, happy to have made a rich, albeit figurative, acquaintance with The Maestro.
Here are three favorites off the top of my head for you to enjoy:
1) Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in this clip the final movement. He is, in a word, electrifying to watch. It’s clear that there are actual notes running through his veins. Please ignore the soprano soloist, I find her strident and entirely irritating.
2) LB composed the score to his friend Jerome Robbins’ very first ballet, Fancy Free, in 1944. This is a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at the NYCB production. The music is fantastic and another example of Bernstein’s capacity for variation in his writing.
3) I picked Candide over West Side Story because, frankly, I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Candide. Bernstein wrote the music to the operetta production of Voltaire’s satire and it opened on Broadway in 1956. The entire show is hilarious, clever and poignant. Here are Kristin Chenoweth (as Cunegonde) and Patti LuPone (as The Old Woman) singing the naughty “We Are Women”. (PS- if you ever watch “Live From Lincoln Center”, the overture to Candide is playing during the opening credits.)
How I would love to go on, but as Wm. Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of blogging.” Happy reveling, and happy birthday, Lenny!