Bernstein Music Sparkles as Young Musicians Lead
By Jamie Bernstein - Classical.org
April 3, 2018
Editor’s note: In this post, Jamie Bernstein blogs about two weeks of sparkling Bernstein performances from Chicago, Colorado Springs, New York City, Washington DC, Scottsdale, and Memphis — many of which featured inspiring young musicians.
One hand, one heart
On a wintry evening in Chicago, I attended a Bernstein-themed gala for the Chicago Youth Symphony — an amazingly robust organization serving 700-plus kids in a number of ensembles. Their largest orchestra tore into Symphonic Dances from West Side Story — a notoriously challenging piece. Other ensembles played for the festively-dressed attendees in hallways.
If these are tomorrow’s professional orchestra players, we’ll be in good hands.
The gala organizers expanded on the Bernstein/West Side Story theme creatively; one item on the menu card was described as “One Hand, One Heart – of Palm.”
And, I had the pleasure of talking with several of the young musicians.
Mannes and “Mambo”
The following weekend had two parts. First, at the Mannes School of Music in New York City, I narrated a concert dedicated to Bernstein at 100. The performers were students of piano and voice (plus a clarinetist and a cellist), who together presented a sublime potpourri of songs and excerpts. Students bring energy to their concerts – and when they also excel at their art, the results are magical.
The next day, I took a train through the snow to Washington D.C., where Washington Performing Arts was presenting the same family concert I’d narrated a few weeks back with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now I was working with members of various military bands and ensembles – all in their finest dress uniforms, complete with chevrons and medals and very fine posture. And could they ever play!
Although I’d tweaked my script for this more adult crowd, the concert organizers couldn’t resist including my beloved “Mambo!” sign to help the audience yell the word at the right spot in the music – and one hour before the concert, there was a delightful backstage flurry involving white posterboard and big black Sharpies.
I was enchanted by their good spirits. And of course, the crowd loved it.
Three days later, it was off to Colorado Springs, where the orchestra there had teamed up with Colorado College to cook up a citywide Bernstein festival. Assistant professor of musicology, Ryan Bañagale, invited me and his former Harvard professor, Carol Oja, to participate in a three-way conversation in front of an invited audience.
I loved observing the warm friendship between these two superb academics: teacher and student convening to share their knowledge with others.
Colorado College is a very interesting institution; it uses the “block” approach, wherein students study one thing at a time, intensively, for one month. As part of the Bernstein festival, each of Professor Banagale’s students designed his or her own block, and their projects were fascinatingly diverse.
In addition, the students put on a performance of one of Leonard Bernstein’s earliest efforts: a unique arrangement of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” designed for the campers at Camp Onota, where teenaged LB was the music counselor. The performance began with piano and clarinet, as one might expect –but then then came an accordion, a recorder, a ukelele, three singers, cymbals, and a tambourine!
It was completely adorable, and made me wish I could have heard my dad’s original performance at Camp Onota.
Moody Leads Musicfest, Memphis
It took a little doing to get from Colorado Springs to Scottsdale, Arizona – involving changing planes in a Salt Lake City blizzard – but when I finally made it, such lovely weather awaited me! Chilly at night, but oh, that warming winter desert sunshine.
The concert I narrated, part of the Arizona Musicfest, featured Chichester Psalms and various other Bernstein choral and vocal works, conducted by my pal, Robert Moody, who really knows his way around singers. It was a luminous Chichester Psalms. That piece remains a top favorite with audiences and performers alike; many chorus members told me they’d been singing it since they were schoolkids, and loved it every time.
Barely five days later, I found myself in Memphis, Tennessee, once again with Bob Moody as well as his favorite soprano, Mary Wilson. This program gave me my second chance in six weeks to narrate my father’s Kaddish symphony. That narration requires all my faculties, sharpened to their maximum. The music is dense and intense, and the timing of words is tricky. It was a very gratifying experience; the Memphis Symphony was excellent, as was the mighty choir, combined with kids’ chorus. And Mary Wilson has a voice that blooms out of her as if it took no effort at all. She can sing anything: from the floating pianissimi in the Kaddish, to the bluesy grace notes in “Simple Song” from Mass, which ended the concert.
Incidentally, the concert’s program was an idea of Bob Moody’s from some years back. His original notion was to start with “Simple Song,” continue with Chichester Psalms, and conclude with Kaddish. I told him it was a terrific program, but that he had it exactly backwards: he needed to begin with Kaddish, I explained; then go to Chichester Psalms which simplifies and lightens up the thornier elements of Kaddish; then conclude with the serenity of Simple Song.
It made for a beautiful and satisfying concert that went to the heart of my father’s musical struggles over tonality, accessibility, and even identity.