BERNSTEIN AT 100
Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) was one of the most phenomenally gifted musicians of the twentieth century. He composed music, conducted it, and played it. He spoke about music and he wrote about it. He knew where it fit into our overall cultural scheme, and he believed in its power to make life better and richer.
Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs 1949 | 7 mins
Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs is a spirited example of a classical-music eminence building a bridge between disparate styles. The three continuous portions of the piece stand as independent episodes, each focusing on a different sound-world within a standard swing band. The Prelude features the trumpets, trombones, and percussion—at first intoning a snappy gesture, then a sultry tune. The Fugue is a bouncy expanse of music featuring five saxophones, with punctuation from the percussion and underpinning from the double bass. The solo clarinet is held in reserve for the Riffs segment, where it lets loose melodic flourishes, assisted at first by piano and then the band’s other instruments. DID YOU KNOW? The premiere was broadcast and is on YouTube. You can see a bass sax was used for what is actually a baritone part—a substitution Bernstein approved of since he was conducting!
Chichester Psalms 1965 | 18 mins
Each of the movements in Chichester Psalms involves a Hebrew text derived from two psalms—one in its entirety, one selectively—which either support each other or provide contrast: Psalms 100 and 108 in the first movement, Psalms 23 and 2 in the second, Psalms 131 and 133 in the third. Movement one is infused with rhythmic punch and wide melodic intervals. This yields to music that is sparkling and snazzy. Next, a boy soprano sings the famous Psalm 23 with bluesy overtones to a harp accompaniment. Movement three begins in a spirit of rugged Americanism. Near the end, the a cappella chorus gives thanks for peace and unity, with the orchestra adding its gentle voice.
Arias and Barcarolles (orch. by Bruce Coughlin) 1988/1993 | 29 mins
Many of Bernstein’s compositions reflect his grappling with personal issues. In Arias and Barcarolles, his last major piece, he addressed matters relating to family. On the whole the piece is affectionate, but it’s not without a measure of vacillation, frustration, and even cynicism. DID YOU KNOW? “Oif Mayn Khas’neh” carries the dedication “for M.T.T.” Bernstein viewed MTT as a musical son, and the two teamed up on the piano bench when the first incarnation of Arias and Barcarolles premiered in 1988.
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story 1957/1961 | 23 mins
A gritty New York neighborhood; the sounds of brash dance music; the excitement of young love. In West Side Story, Bernstein transposes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from Verona to the slums of mid-Manhattan’s West Side. The feuding Montagues and Capulets are replaced by the Anglo “Jets” and the Puerto Rican “Sharks,” two warring street gangs whose rivalry is inflamed by the city’s racial hatreds. The brilliance of West Side Story lies in its use of tension. The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story communicate all the tension, the frenetic pace, and the nervous intensity of urban life in America.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.