Tag Archives: Leonard Bernstein

[92] Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim – West Side Story

9 Jan

My wife and I saw the most recent Broadway revival of West Side Story while she was heavily pregnant with our daughter.  The way she kicked during the show, we thought for a moment we might have to name her Maria . . .

Original Broadway Cast

Original Broadway Cast

It was at this performance that I reached an understanding that was a long time coming:  I do not like the Romeo and Juliet story.

Even a hugely talented cast and a favorite actress like Karen Olivo could not change that simple fact, and looking closer the feeling was not a new one.

I didn’t enjoy studying the play (despite devouring everything I could learn about Anthony and Cleopatra or Macbeth in High School), I’ve never seen a version of the original on stage or screen that I’ve enjoyed, and the various adaptations have always left me cold.

I’ll say that the wonderful Dire Straights song (covered beautifully by The Indigo Girls) is the exception that proves the rule.

For some reason, I always blamed the actors or director or concept, the container rather than the contents.  But on that day I  finally realized that I just think it’s a bad story.  When I mentioned this recently to a coworker, she accused me of not being a romantic.

Clearly she is new and doesn’t know me very well.

I believe it is more romantic to live for love than to die for it.  There is a reason that Queen’s “One Year Of Love” was for a while my very favorite song.

But, what is past is prologue.  How do I feel today listening to two geniuses put Shakespeare and translate him to cool modern music and too smart lyrics?  Can I put the story on hold and just focus on the composition?

Oh, yes.

Bernstein as usual skirts the line between classical and popular, writing great emotional ballads and sharp punchy dance numbers, somehow both timeless and still contemporary.  Quite a trick.

And Sondheim introduces here some of the lyrical wordplay that would pepper his entire career.  It is no secret that I adore Sondheim – Company is my favorite Musical so I am sad that Tom Moon has omitted it from his list – and his way with words sometimes spoils me for other lyricists.  It is a nice problem to have.

There are so many highlights – the driving rhythms of “Something’s Coming”, the sweet simplicity of “Maria”, the machine gun wit of “America”, the necessary levity of “Gee, Officer Krupke” – that whenever I am playing the album people stop, and smile, and say, “West Side Story?”

Unlike my experience of some of the Opera I have explored over the last couple of years, it seems that removing these songs from their natural, theatrical setting has enhanced them for me, allowing me to ignore the hated plot and enjoy each piece as an individual story song.

Besides, how could I even consider failing to recommend a recording which contains the following rhyme?

I like the island Manhattan /
Smoke in your pipe and put that in.

Next Week:  Chuck Berry – The Anthology

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 92 = 10%)
Heard before blogging? Yes. (13 of 92 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (74 of 92 = 80%)

[73] Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quartets Opp. 131 and 135

29 Aug

My wife and I recently watched “A Late Quartet”.  In the back of my mind I was aware that, for this blog, I would soon be listening to a recording of the pieces featured in that fascinating movie.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic

However, the perfect personal performances seen and heard on screen bear no resemblance whatsoever to the huge and hearty sounds that Leonard Bernstein urges from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The reason is obvious.  Bernstein has transposed Beethoven’s work – originally written for a viola, a cello and two violins – to an entire string section of a modern orchestra.

The sound is big and bold and yet still nuanced, the many parts of the orchestra coalescing into a pleasing whole.  But something – the melody? the lack of intimacy? – fails to grab me the way the same pieces did in the movie.

I do not follow the internal story, the structure of these pieces intuitively as I did so viscerally, so immediately with the “Archduke”.  It’s not something I can easily articulate, but this recording doesn’t resonate with me in a meaningful way.

Am I unfairly comparing this purely audial experience with all of the visual and interpersonal storytelling that went hand in hand with this music in “A Late Quartet”?  It is entirely possible.

Am I still reveling in the afterglow of discovering the “Archduke”?  I certainly could be.

But whatever the reason, I don’t expect to feel the desire to revisit these String Quartets in the future, although I might watch the movie again.

However, I am certain that I will enjoy my next visit with Bernstein a few months from now . . .

Next Week: Ludwig van Beethoven – Missa Solemnis

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 73 = 12%)
Heard before blogging? No. (11 of 73 = 15%)
Recommend? No. (58 of 73 = 79%)


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