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CLASSICAL  January 2005

CLASSICAL January 2005

Subject:

Bernstein Looks Back

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 24 Jan 2005 11:01:38 -0600

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      Leonard Bernstein
      American Masters 2

*  Piston: The Incredible Flutist Suite
*  Blitzstein: Airborne Symphony*
*  Hill: Prelude for Orchestra^ (MONO)

Orson Welles (narrator)*, Andrea Velis (tenor)*, David Watson (baritone)*,
Choral Art Society*, Columbia Symphony Orchestra^, New York
Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein

Sony SMK61849 Total time: 78:09

Summary for the Busy Executive: When we were young.

I've just finished listening to the ten-part Leonard Bernstein radio
documentary on my local NPR station.  A lot of it seemed empty fawning,
and I *like* Bernstein.  But a man should be protected from his friends.
At any rate, I got to hear a lot of Bernstein's music, always a good
thing.  Above all - despite the cribs from Stravinsky, Hindemith, Copland,
Foss, and other bits and pieces - it struck me as brilliantly individual,
immediately identifiable as Bernstein.  How he could take such a mix and
make it his own borders to me on the miraculous.  With a Bernstein piece,
you at least can't complain that you don't know what you're getting.

Before hearing this CD, I hadn't realized how much Bernstein programmed
his youth (or at least his adolescence), especially as far as American
music went.  Copland, of course, became a friend.  Piston and Hill stood
among Bernstein's Harvard teachers.  Diamond helped him with his scores
early on.  Blitzstein met the Harvard student Bernstein, who had gotten
up a performance of the older composer's "union opera," The Cradle Will
Rock.  Bernstein came up in the Thirties and retained to the end of his
life a belief that art should make a better society.  His witty
characterization of Copland's music as coming from an Old Testament
prophet masked, to a great extent, the way he viewed himself.  Just
think of almost any of his Big Pieces: the "Jeremiah" Symphony, the "Age
of Anxiety" Symphony, the "Kaddish" Symphony, Facsimile, Mass, 1600
Pennsylvania Avenue / White House Cantata, Arias and Barcarolles, Songfest,
even the "little" opera Trouble in Tahiti.  Every single one of them
speaks to a broken culture.  The major exception seems to me the Serenade,
from Plato on love.

I keep hearing that The Incredible Flutist ballet - about the circus
that came to town - is Walter Piston's most popular work.  If I compare
it to the symphonies, concerti, and chamber music, it seems rather bland
to me, but why deny people their fun?  I imagine the genuine naivete of
the ballet makes up a large part of its appeal.  The major tune in it
is a soulful tango, and Bernstein rightly emphasizes its schmaltz.  Well,
maybe "schmaltz" isn't the right word, since it implies manipulation,
and both Piston and Bernstein embrace the piece without cynicism.  On
the other hand, Bernstein reveals nothing not found in other recordings.
Unless totally hipped on Bernstein, you probably wouldn't buy the CD for
this work.

I'd say the same for the Hill.  Edward Burlingame Hill, at one time a
respected American symphonist, has just about disappeared from concerts
and recordings.  This may well be the only CD of his music currently
available in the U.S. I like his chamber works best, a genre most suited
to his essentially modest and reticent artistic nature.  The Prelude for
Orchestra opens slowly in a way that reminds us, if nothing else, of
musical Impressionism's roots in Wagner.  It sounds stuck half-way between
Tristan and Debussy's faun.  A quicker section reinforces the Impressionism,
and from then on it's pretty much a la francaise to the end.  It's very
refined writing, but not particularly memorable, except for a pretty
magical ending.  Much of it goes by, however, like the scenery in southern
Illinois before you get to that particular delight.

The big work, in all senses, is the Blitzstein Airborne Symphony.
The composer began as a Schoenberg disciple and produced a lovely piano
concerto in the dodecaphonic style.  However, Blitzstein stood politically
on the left, and leftist Thirties aesthetics dictated that art reach out
to the common man.  Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill in Germany faced the
same problem.  They all knew that the common man wouldn't have sat still
for their particular brand of High Art.  They all solved the problem in
the same way: to write in the idiom of popular sources.  Since they had
gone through a very rigorous training of a certain kind, they weren't
going to write exactly popular music, although Weill came close in his
Broadway career, achieving a couple of "standards," and Blitzstein had
a minor pop success with his song "I Wish It So." However, there's nothing
written just for disposable entertainment - like Victor Young's "Sweet
Sue," for example - in any of their work.  High Art lurks in the back
of their minds, even in something as raucous and self-consciously
worked-for American as Weill's "Saga of Jenny." In Blitzstein, this
stands out more obviously than in Weill's American output.  The music
sounds like a hodge-podge of "open-prairie" Copland, Broadway pizzazz,
neoclassicism, corrosive Eislerian satire, hints of jazz, a little of
the Berlin Weill, and something strongly individual.  Indeed, the mixture
reminds me of - guess who?  - Bernstein himself, particularly the Broadway
sections.  It's what I would normally think of as Bernstein's Broadway,
but Blitzstein got there first.  The main problem with it, it seems to
me, is that Blitzstein had specific political issues he wanted to address:
the necessity of defeating Fascism (he began writing the symphony during
World War II), and the opening up of a second front - probably beefing
up the Soviets in the East rather than the Normandy campaign the British
and Americans actually went for.  Ironically, the symphony's premiere
took place after the war, when these issues had lost their immediate
point.  Still, Blitzstein enjoyed a success.

Any "political" artist runs the risk of datedness and quaintness.  I
don't deny that parts of the "Airborne" call up a very specific time,
as does, incidentally, Dickens's Hard Times or Blitzstein's Cradle Will
Rock.  I can't separate Bernstein's Mass from memories of the Viet Nam
War, either.  However, I think it a mistake to dismiss political art or
political elements in the art as Something That Happened Then.  After
all, one can still find plenty of political thuggery about without too
much trouble.  I propose the following corollary to Santayana's dictum
of not knowing the past leading to committing the mistakes of the past:
we pretty much make the same mistakes whether or not we have studied the
past, usually because we consider ourselves smarter than the rubes who
came before us.  The best political art, although occasioned by specific
incidents, often talks about things always with us.  I don't say that
Blitzstein's symphony is a perfect work. His own text often touches the
sappy, in a Norman Corwin-ish way.  Bernstein's "Kaddish" symphony suffers
for the same reason.  However, music takes the curse off a lot of bad
poetry, as a good perusal of Brahms's songs will confirm.  The music's
the thing, and it rises to moments of great power, particularly in the
"Ballad of the Cities" movement, about the air war from the perspective
of those beneath the bombs.  The "Ballad of the Bombardier" - a young
flier writes home to his wife - is beautifully simple and touching.  And
then there's the simple fact of so many memorable tunes in the piece:
the aforementioned "Ballad of the Bombardier," "Ballad of History and
Mythology," "Ballad of Hurry-Up," to name a few. I've never forgotten
the rat-a-tat exhortation to "Open up that second front!" since I first
heard it, almost forty years ago.  You come out of this symphony, as you
do from a wonderful Broadway show - humming the tunes.  You can't say
that about too many symphonies.  Blitzstein wants to connect with a broad
audience, and he certainly achieved that goal here.

Bernstein leads a heart-on-the-sleeve performance - in my opinion, the
only way to play it.  Quite simply, he - like the composer - goes for
emotional broke.  The embarrassing excess and sentimentality are there,
but so are the power and the genuine sentiment.  The symphony is also
gorgeously played and sung.  Orson Welles chews up the scenery in his
role as narrator, although the honied burr of his deep voice eventually
seduced me.  One doesn't hear the word "authenticity" much these days
(probably for good reasons), but Blitzstein's cleaving passionately to
the truth as he saw it and - let's face it - his artistry ultimately
reduce the complaints to mere carping.

Steve Schwartz

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