Maybe Leonard Bernstein wasn’t my initial gateway into classical music, but he certainly held the biggest gallery in my musical memory palace.
If I had to pick a place and time where my musical world exploded, it was probably that summer night in Clear Lake when my Dad took my brother and me to see “Amadeus” at the park theatre. I wrote about that last year when I got to sing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. You can read about that here, if you’d like.
So if “Amadeus” was my introduction, then discovering this PBS documentary on the making of “West Side Story” was my apprenticeship into a wider world.
I can’t tell you exactly what it is about this documentary that captured my imagination when I was a kid. I loved that they had the actual composer of the musical there to “re-record” the entire WSS score with operatic stars. I love “behind the scenes” stuff at the best of times, and to see this eccentric genius work with these diva stars, trying to mold them into what he had in mind is great. It’s not like Bernstein is interpreting a Beethoven symphony or a Bach oratorio, he’s actually telling the cast and orchestra how it should be, because he wrote it. At one point, Kiwi soprano soloist Kiri Te Kanawa says pretty much the same thing. Something like “when he says This is the tempo, he’s not saying, This is what I think Mozart thought the tempo should be. He is the Mozart in this case.” I love how things don’t go right all the time. Kiri loses her voice, and hot blooded Spanish tenor Jose Carreras gets into a big fight with Bernstein and storms out of the recording studio at one point. It’s really great. And those moments when Bernstein just closes his eyes and wills the music out of the orchestra and soloists. I was smitten.
Here’s a link to the whole thing, if you’re interested. I strongly recommend it.
[im being told that it won’t play on mobile devices, just computers. So keep that in mind!]
You may ALSO get a clue as to where my penchant for RED TURTLENECKS might have come from.
After seeing this, I slowly learned how big a presence Bernstein was in 20th century music. I mean, you’ve got Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein, right? There’s no one else. Who am I missing? NO ONE! ALL GUESSES ARE WRONG!
When I would seek our recordings on cassette, I had one guiding principle: Did Leonard Bernstein record it. If yes, then I would get it. (If not, then I would look for Robert Shaw, if no Shaw, then I’d get whatever version I could get).
Despite Bernstein’s apparent ubiquity in American music, he really didn’t write that much original stuff himself. He was more of an interpreter and education. This is evident in his many “Concerts for Young People” with the New York Philharmonic and his many wonderful appearances on the Omnibus TV series. He was single-handedly responsible for reintroducing Mahler to North American audiences in the 1950’s and 60’s as director of the New York Philharmonic when Mahler’s music was all but forgotten. So depending on how you feel about Mahler, you know who to thank or blame. You can get a sense of Mahler’s influence on Bernstein’s work in some of the “stormy” passages of the West Side Story score. It’s there.
Musically, Bernstein will be remembered for Candide, On the Town and West Side Story, but of course West Side Story stands out from the others like a Jet amongst a group of Sharks. #teamjets #teamsharks #teammaria #teamtony
AND, as my dear friends like to point out, Stephen Sondheim wrote the words.
Look, I wasn’t going to mention Sondheim in this Bernstein-centric post, but since you brought it up, let’s address it quickly. Is it true that I have said I don’t like Stephen Sondheim? It’s true. Is it true that I vomited in the middle of watching “Sweeney Todd” in the theatre? That’s also true. It is true that Sondheim makes me feel funny “down below”? Um, no. That one is DEFINITELY not true. I don’t know how that question got past the interns.
And yet: do I declare right here that West Side Story is my favourite musical, despite being covered in Sondheim’s fingerprints? What can I say? I am a contradictory, enigmatic complex bundle of feelings and tastes. Don’t try to figure me out, just love me all the same.
And here’s a fun fact: I HAVE NEVER SEEN A LIVE STAGE VERSION OF WEST SIDE STORY.
Sure, I’ve seen the movie a bunch of times, and I played the soundtrack that came out of those documentary sessions on cassette until I wore it out, and whenever my cousin Lorraine from Calgary and I get together, one of us starts with “Puerto Rico you lovely island” and the two of us are off singing all the parts, but that’s as far as I’ve gone with it.
So I’m pretty excited about getting to see “West Side Story” tonight. I’m ready to vault back to the first time I ever heard all those songs, and imagine that Bernstein is down there in the orchestra pit, swaying and bopping and doing his famous “Lenny Dance” along with the Jets and Sharks. And at the beginning, as the lights dim, I’ll sing to myself, “Now we begin. Now we start. One hand. One Heart….”