More on Bernstein

Few composers in this past century have had the public appeal of Leonard Bernstein (and few could rival his extensive collection of snow globes featuring Bavarian milkmaids). While his peers were trying to impress each other with their latest 12-tone serial pieces, Bernstein was composing very listenable tonal pieces. But I fear I am lapsing into Classicalese, a murky language often used to establish snobbery. Perhaps I had better clarify the waters a bit, eh? Almost all the music you hear is tonal (even the Spice Girls, though it's not always easy to tell). No doubt, you've heard some swanky lounge lizard ask the piano player to play "Smoke on the Water" in "the key of C" (and no doubt it took countless psychiatric sessions to get over the terrible experience that followed, and here I am, reopening old wounds...) This "key" is a set standard of notes, in this case, all the white keys on the piano but none of the black keys. The note "C" is the tonal center of this key and all the chords that are played are somehow related to this note (for more information, refer to the book Classical Music for Dummies, plug). Back in the first part of this century, when socialism was all the rage, a happy composer by the name of Schoenberg (Shoe-in-burg) thought that it was unfair to exclude the black keys so he devised a method whereby each of the twelve notes of the scale are arranged in a set order and then always played in that order (hence the name "12-tone serial"). That is, no single note got more than his or her fair share of playing. The result is an uneasy, eerie, harsh sound that most people find anything but enjoyable. But the critics liked it so that is all that mattered.

It was during all this critically acclaimed chaos that a young Leonard Bernstein was making his way in the world as a conductor. His big break was one of those one-in-a-million opportunities. There he was, minding his own business in the greater New York area, when the legendary Bruno Walter became sick (he had the plague). Someone was needed to conduct the New York Philharmonic! The show must go on! Bernstein was asked, he agreed to conduct, and as a result, he became famous overnight. The heart of his success lay with how he conducted. For some, he cut right to the heart of symphonic material, giving himself unreservedly to the music's emotional pulse. For others, he was a self-indulgent showman seeking applause for himself instead of the music. Regardless of how one feels about his conducting style, it is impossible to deny his influence on the resurgence of interest in classical music. It was in the 60's (ah, the 60's) that he came under increasingly harsh criticism for sticking with "juvenile" tonal music instead of doing what any self-respecting composer should do, which is to alienate your audience with difficult, abrasive music while seeking critical praise. As a result, he lost his confidence as a composer and christened himself the guardian of what he felt was the best in music (sadly, it did not include "Hang on Sloopy"). To reach the audience which had been turned away by modern music, Bernstein did a number of television shows in which he played and brilliantly explained the pieces he loved. He also wrote countless books and articles (well, you could count them, but why bother?), effectively persuading many to open the doors of "serious" music. In 1990, he died (insert own de-composing joke here).

As a composer, his greatest success was in music for the stage. Everyone knows West Side Story, one of the most popular Broadway musicals ever (narrowly beating out Cohen's Emu Review and Shuman's The Day I Wore Underpants, both big, big hits in the Ukraine). Out of West Side Story, Bernstein culled what he considered the best parts and created a set of symphonic dances, which the Philharmonic will be playing this Saturday. It's catchy and funů an entire musical in just twenty minutes! They will also be playing his Age of Anxiety, a large-scale piece which is, appropriately, full of angst-ridden tension. Long-time Fort Wayne Philharmonic pianist Jodie DeSalvo will be back in Fort Wayne to play the piano part (she was originally asked to play the second-chair trombone part, but after hearing her play, the powers that be reconsidered their offer), returning from her resort villa in Florida. While officially, this piece is a symphony, it could very easily be categorized as a piano concerto due to the huge, solo laden piano part. Both of these pieces show why Bernstein is so well loved. He effectively combines the world of classical music with jazz, creating spunky, memorable melodies that seem timeless from the first time they are heard.

Keeping with the theme of American composers, the philharmonic will also be playing Symphony #2 by Aaron Jay Kernis. And as if this were not special enough, Mr. Kernis will be in Fort Wayne to attend the performance of this work, a piece that has only received four other performances world-wide. However, it has just been released on CD, so operators are standing by! BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE! Kernis, who just won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize (which turns out to be a lifetime supply of tuna) is one of the most promising American composers alive. His music has been described as inventive, lyrical, and expressive (as well as TONAL!). Beginning his musical studies on the violin at age 12, he began to teach himself piano, and, in the following year, composition. He has since studied at many prominent schools and received a lot of awards (I'm not jealous... just gruff). His second symphony grew out of what he saw as the "absurdity of the Persian Gulf War," concentrating on the global effects of the war and the suffering it brought about. As you might guess, the piece is rich with a "dark, restless energy" and mournful themes (and lots of oil). So be sure to attend this Saturday's performance. If you stick around, you might get to meet the composer and be able to tell your grandkids that you once shook hands with THE Aaron Kernis! I'm sure they'll be impressed.

Check out the Official Leonard Bernstein Site"

Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman

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