Program Notes for Leonard Bernstein at 100

by Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen

Leonard Bernstein
Born: August 25, 1918, Lawrence, MA, Died: October 14, 1990, New York City

Philharmonia Northwest joins orchestras and audiences worldwide to celebrate the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Each of the works on our program fits into the interlocking strands of Bernstein’s life, as a conductor, composer, and performer, of course, but also as someone actively, even controversially, involved in the politics and social movements of his time.

On the Town: Three Dance Episodes (1946)

Our first piece, “Three Dance Episodes” from the musical On the Town, is one of the clearest expressions of Bernstein’s Broadway roots. He had worked with choreographer Jerome Robbins on the ballet Fancy Free, which was wildly popular during its run in 1944. A follow-up project was a natural, and the two collaborated with the writers and performers Betty Comden and Adolph Green to produce On the Town, which premiered on Broadway in late 1944 to rave reviews (one critic wrote that it was “a musical comedy that puts an end to all adequate usage of superlatives”). It was very much a product of the War years, with its depiction of three sailors on leave for a single, frantic day in New York City, something that would have been familiar to city audiences at that time. In fact, Comden’s own husband was away in service as they were writing the show. The orchestral arrangement we hear today, taken from the musical’s New York dream ballet sequence, premiered in February 1946.

But On the Town had progressive social aspects as well. As Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton points out, this was the first American musical “to have white and black dancers side by side—literally holding hands—on a New York stage.” And Bernstein himself convinced the well-known Japanese-American Broadway star, Sono Osato, to perform the lead female role, a bold choice as the War was still raging at the time of the premiere (the “Three Dance Episodes” were dedicated to Osato, Comden, and Nancy Walker, who also performed in the musical). Yet On the Town marked the end of Bernstein’s initial, and productive, period as a composer, and the beginning of his focus on conducting. At the urging of one of his most important mentors, Serge Koussevitzky, Bernstein shunted composition to his off hours, between tours and seasons, and spent the next decade or so intensively engaged in his career as a conductor. He returned to Broadway only in the mid-1950s.

Halil (1981)

Bernstein’s flute concerto, Halil (the Hebrew word for ‘flute’), comes from the other end of his career. He had guest conducted a variety of orchestras in the early 1950s, with a career-making engagement as a substitute conductor for the New York Philharmonic in 1956, where he was appointed music director in 1958. The role came with a price, however, for he did little composing between the late 1950s and around 1969 (when he retired from his post in New York). Halil is a late work, written in 1980-1981, and inspired by the death of a young Israeli flute student, Yadin Tenenbaum, who had been killed in the 1973 War; it is dedicated “to the spirit of Yadin and his fallen brothers.” Burton, the biographer quoted above, describes Halil as “a single rhapsodic movement alternating moments of lyricism and violence.” Bernstein also emphasized the element of violence, but with a focus on the concept of night, saying that the work reflected “an on-going conflict of nocturnal images: wish-dreams, nightmares, repose, sleeplessness, night terrors—and sleep itself, Death’s twin brother.” Our soloist, Paul Taub, also stresses the work’s emotion, saying that he is “very much enjoying the drama and the passion in this moving piece of music, made even more meaningful in light of current events of today and the recent past.”

Mass (Selections) (1971)

Between these two works stands the Mass, a complex piece, as its full title indicates: “Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers.” It was commissioned for the opening of the new Kennedy Center, in 1971, at the instigation of Jacqueline Kennedy, and designed to take advantage of a full complement of music, performance, and stage effects—a huge work conceived of as an all-encompassing theatrical experience.

The sometimes overwhelming juxtapositions of musical styles and genres in the Mass are typical. Such multiplicity is illustrated beautifully by Bernstein’s activities over the course of three days in May 1969. During these three days, Bernstein gave his farewell concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic; attended a Jimi Hendrix concert; and flew to Vienna to conduct the Beethoven Missa Solemnis. All of these influences are reflected in the Mass, which (again citing Burton), was “the closest Bernstein ever came to achieving a synthesis between Broadway and the concert hall.” The music of the Mass is wide ranging: Broadway rhythms and bongos, hymns and instrumental interludes, dissonant modernist writing and the blues, electric guitars and orchestral instruments … and the list could go on and on.

In the excerpts we’ll hear (almost a third of the original work), we get a sense of the emotional range the piece traverses through the use of Latin liturgical texts and much slangier English passages. The Mass reflects Bernstein’s eclectic approach in other ways: he invited the singer/songwriter Paul Simon to work with him, and even though the collaboration didn’t continue, Simon was responsible for what are probably the most famous lines in the Mass: “Half of the people are stoned / And the other half are waiting for the next election. Half of the people are drowned / And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.”

Bernstein’s own words best reflect what he intended to do in this sprawling work: “The ritual is conducted by a young man of mysterious simplicity (called the Celebrant) who throughout the drama is invested by his acolytes with increasingly ornate robes and symbols.” (Our excerpts open with the Celebrant singing, appropriately, “A Simple Song.”) Bernstein continues: “There is a parallel increase in the resistance of his Congregants … and in the deterioration of his own faith.” (Thus the “Half of the people” lines.) Bernstein: “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 … enabling each individual to pass on the embrace of peace (Pax) to his neighbor.”

The impact of the Mass was not only musical but also reflected the stark politics of its time. In 1969, Bernstein’s wife had hosted a reception for the Black Panthers. This event alerted not just the press (thus bestowing the phrase “radical chic,” coined by Tom Wolfe, as emblematic of the decade), but it made the FBI even more interested in Bernstein than they already were. Before the premiere, one of President Nixon’s aides, Pat Buchanan, wrote in a memorandum: “My view is that we ought to find someone who can definitely translate that Latin Mass Bernstein is working on—to make sure this is accurate.” As the editor of Bernstein’s letters, Nigel Simeone, remarks dryly, “It would be reassuring to think that this … was the only time that the words of the Latin Mass came under suspicion from a Presidential aide.” President Nixon did not attend the opening, although the Kennedy family did, and gave the production their accolades. As we celebrate Bernstein’s life with this concert, it seems appropriate to end with Burton’s assessment: Bernstein, he writes, early in his life “became America’s best-known classical musician: by the time of his death, he truly belonged to the world.”