Beautiful tribute to one of music’s greatest minds at Jorgensen

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Seeing such incredible music performed live serves as a reminder of the power that Bernstein’s music holds after all these years. He was a true genius in every sense of the word, making music that seems almost incomprehensible in its composition but is easily understood in its feeling and message. (Majdolin Al Jajeh/The Daily Campus)

“The most beautiful sound I ever heard.”

This line which opens his famous song “Maria,” is a fitting encapsulation of the work of American composer Leonard Bernstein. Celebrating his 100th birthday, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra stopped at Jorgensen to perform some of his greatest and most underrated selections. The orchestra was conducted by John Mauceri, a friend and collaborator of Bernstein who worked with him for 18 years. Their close personal and business relationship meant that Mauceri had excellent insight into all of Bernstein’s music, which allowed him to deconstruct each piece by going into its history and meaning. The orchestra was also accompanied by mezzo-soprano vocalist Isabel Leonard. Her voice soared in every song, evenly matching the power of Bernstein’s instrumental work.

The main event of the night came at the end of the program with a performance of Bernstein’s masterpiece, “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.” Selected from what is without a doubt one of the greatest musical scores ever composed, the piece blended together many of the musical’s most famous numbers into one transcendent musical journey. The passion and energy conveyed without words is astonishing, vividly capturing the emotions of troubled youths in 1950s Manhattan, struggling to find love and acceptance in a world which aims to tear them apart and marginalize them.

Mauceri called the “Symphonic Dances” “one of the most difficult works in the symphonic repertoire,” and for good reason. The sheer number of notes and frantic speed of the composition at points is breathtaking. Seeing this music performed live served as a reminder of why “West Side Story” remains so popular after 62 years, a pinnacle of what musicals as an art form are capable of. While on the topic, if you haven’t seen “West Side Story,” the 1961 film adaptation that won the Academy Award for best picture is on Netflix right now. Do yourself a favor and check it out as soon as possible.

Next to “West Side Story”, the next most recognizable piece performed was the “Overture from Candide,” an operetta based on a novel by Voltaire. This is a grand, sweeping piece, featuring intervals of fast-paced bombast and gentle serenity. Unlike his other work (which mostly seems to use modern musical styles), “Candide” is highly evocative of Tchaikovsky and the other great composers of the 19th century. While the earliest version of “Candide” was not as much of a success as intended, people keep making new productions with new lyrics because the music was so beloved. Mauceri actually worked on a version of “Candide” with Bernstein, which won four Tonys and paved the way for a full version for Scottish theater which won the Olivier Award.

Two of the selections came from a lesser known musical Bernstein composed titled “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Written for the American bicentennial, the show takes place in the White House and follows the lives of the first few presidents. Despite the fact that the production had no shortage of talent—this was the first musical he had worked on since “West Side Story” and the lyrics were written by the man behind “My Fair Lady”—the show was a humiliating failure.

Still, despite its drop from the public consciousness, Bernstein’s score featured some excellent pieces. The first piece, titled the “Concert Suite,” opens like a military march with drum, horns and flute before switching to a quaint Americana sound. The piece flips back and forth between both styles before finding a unity, mixing both styles for a regal sound with a twinge of sadness.

The other selection was “Take Care of This House,” sung from the perspective of First Lady Abigail Adams. The song, which at a surface level is about passing on the care of the White House to Thomas Jefferson, is really about America as a fledgling nation. This is made most clear in the repeated lyric, “For this house is the whole of us all,” using the White House as a representation of the country. Beginning with a mysterious fluttering opening, the music soon changed to reverent and almost religious in nature. The beauty of both songs proved that this musical, while not perfect, deserves a second look by modern audiences.

“What a Movie!” from “Trouble in Tahiti” showed a more humorous side of Bernstein’s music, telling the story of a suburban wife’s experiences seeing an exotic Hollywood musical set in Polynesia (something which had become almost a genre unto itself in the mid-20th century). The song opened with a harsh shrieking voice and bursts of horns to illustrate the wife’s rage at the film’s ludicrous plot before changing to an upbeat jazzy style. There were also a few moments mocking the stereotypical music featured in those films with the tribal native tunes and the bombastic American naval anthems. By the end, the wife seems to actually like the idea of the movie, but snaps herself out of it, returning to the tone of the opening.

“Meditation No. 3” from “Mass” represented a person asking God questions during a crisis of faith. The piece featured a cello in the role of the questioning soul, carrying on a dissonant tune against the comforting sound of the violins. The use of tambourine and vibraphone gave the piece a foreign sound, which blended well with the Middle Eastern dancing rhythm. Finally, the cello struck a beautiful high note on its own to close the piece, resolving its disorganization with a feeling of closure and acceptance.

The program also included “Music I Heard with You” from “Songfest,” “So Pretty,” “Silhouette” and “Some Other Time” from “On the Town,” all with vocals from Leonard.

Seeing such incredible music performed live serves as a reminder of the power that Bernstein’s music holds after all these years. He was a true genius in every sense of the word, making music that seems almost incomprehensible in its composition but is easily understood in its feeling and message. His music rushes over you, pours feelings of such vigor and depth into your heart that it cannot be forgotten once heard. His music will live on for hundreds of years to come, and I have no doubt that his name will always have a place among the greats.


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.

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