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Lenny, un-Quiet

Man at work. This photo was taken by George S. Zimbel, who posted a tribute to Lenny himself.

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?

By Anne Midgette  | October 29, 2010; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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I think we might consider moving away from the "light" and "serious" designations, towards considering Bernstein as a composer, period. There is no doubt that as a composer, he was a genius. His output was variable; so? 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue flopped, but, I'm telling you, there's some worthy music in that score. We don't slight Mozart's Serenades because in comparison to the Requiem, they are "light." There's as much distance in terms of heft and style between a Mozart Serenade and the Mozart Requiem as there is between On The Town and the Kadish Symphony. Achieving consensus among music critics and commentators isn't a realistic goal, anyway. I'll bet you one outstanding performance of Chichester Psalms that Bernstein's ghost is smiling at us right now.

Posted by: ScottRose | October 29, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

When I heard Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic play Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 ("The Age of Anxiety") last April in Los Angeles, I felt that hearing it "fresh" (i.e., decades removed from my first hearing) was a real benefit. They're doing Symphony No. 1 ("Jeremiah") in January and I wonder if it will have the same "new look" feel to it — I hope so. Thus, as you hear "Kaddish" anew in June, I hope that will be the way you approach it, as well. On the "classical" side, my favorite piece remains "Chichester Psalms" but my overall favorite continues to be "West Side Story" — someday someone will do the sort of iconic revival that Lincoln Center did last year with "South Pacific" and we'll all finally realize how truly special it is.

Posted by: BobTatFORE | October 30, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I saw A Quite Place at Lowell House, Harvard, in 1991. I don't remember much about the performance, but I did enjoy it & think it deserves to be performed once in a while. I would have gone to NY to see it, but it was not convenient for me to travel just now.

Posted by: jrpboston | October 30, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Bernstein will always be remembered for West Side Story; along with this, my favorite music of his is the Serenade after Plato's Symposium for violin and orchestra. I've loved this work since hearing the old Isaac Stern recording of it; my love for it was renewed when I heard it performed in Baltimore about 8-10 years ago by Hilary Hahn. Breathtaking.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | November 1, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

As a young music student, I had the pleasure of having my high-school band director introduce me to Bernstein's, Jeremiah Symphony. The second movement "Profanation" remains one of the single most powerfully emotive pieces of music I've ever heard. It gives me chills to simply write of it. As a relatively young NSO fan (I'm currently 27) I always make time to attend any performance of Bernstein's works, both "serious" and other. That is the Joy of Lenny.

Posted by: foxmccloud2 | November 1, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

As many comments have rightly pointed out, it is not very useful to pigeon hole Bernstein's music, or his work overall for that matter. He was a brilliant spot in American music and remains so. We could another Bernstein. Someone with a voracious appetite for all kinds of music. To start from the "light" or "serious" perspective dilutes the conversation. There is so much of his legacy to keep in our ears and enjoy. It is odd that the thoughts so far in Anne's piece and the comments have not mentioned "Candide," which is also coming to town (from Chicago), with great reviews. Like a lot of Bernstein, it's just very good music.

Posted by: rpkleinfeldt | November 1, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Over here in France, his music is celebrated. At the Chatelet Theater they staged Candide, West Side Story and On the Town, one each year. Other American composers get praise and attention as well. Menotti and Barber had operas performed around France recently and Copeland's "Quite City" was done in Lyon this year. France recently found new appreciation for some neglected French composers. Maybe American can follow that trend.

Posted by: Frank991 | November 3, 2010 5:55 AM | Report abuse

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