Part of the conventional wisdom about Leonard Bernstein is that he never quite achieved his potential as a composer. One reason: criticized through his career for being too light, too Broadway, he felt compelled to assert his seriousness in his self-appointed big works, which makes some of them turgid.
People often forget just how Bernstein was castigated by the so-called serious music press for his Broadway abilities. He was constantly being beaten up due to his biggest natural talent: his facility for writing gorgeous, singable melodies. It was a huge criticism of “Mass,” which remains one of his more successful “fusion” pieces, when it premiered in 1971. (Not everyone would agree about that "successful" part.)
Lenny is in the news right now due to the revival (dare one say exhumation) of his 1983 opera “A Quiet Place” (later revised) at the New York City Opera, which opened Wednesday. The reviews are mixed, as always. In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini pays homage to a great musician; in the New York Post, James Jorden says that the result, nonetheless, doesn’t cut it. (Other thoughts: James C. Taylor in the Los Angeles Times. I'll keep adding as I find them.)
Washington audiences will have their own chance to talk about Bernstein when the “Kaddish” Symphony arrives at the NSO in June. I haven’t seen “A Quiet Place,” and am not sure I will manage to get to it during its run; but it’s always intriguing, when Bernstein’s serious works resurface, to see the mixture of veneration, love, kneejerk criticism that tends to obscure objective evaluation of the composer’s work.
So: what are your thoughts on Lenny, serious and light? Have you seen "A Quiet Place," and what did you think; should it be done more often? What is your favorite Bernstein piece? Or do you prefer to think of him as a conductor, and a character -- or not at all?
| October 29, 2010; 2:40 PM ET
Categories: random musings
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