26 September 2007


09/26/2007, 7:11 AM

I must've been 11 or 12, lying in a beanbag chair in the middle of the living room, having attended church with the peeps, then eating our massive Sunday dinner (non-negotiable, more on this later) on a lazy Sabbath afternoon staring at the TV with most of the family nearly passed out, when dad came across West Side Story on a local affiliate station.

"Hey! Let's watch this," dad said. "You'll love it." We all groaned. (Though a couple years earlier my mom had pulled the same stunt with a little something called It's A Wonderful Life, and goddammit if the old bag wasn't exactly right. So I was hesitant to poo-poo the idea altogether.)

If I'm not mistaken (I don't feel like googling -- besides, I'm operating under the assumption that non-googling, like doing crossword puzzles, prevents Alzeimer's disease), Leonard Bernstein, pronounced "Bern-stein", was 26 years old when he got the call that Bruno Walter (I think) was under the weather (Drunk!) and the Harvard whiz kid had to sub with the New York Philharmonic that night. I like to believe Mahler was on the program, which makes it even more dramatic. I hope he was.

The rest isn't just history. It's legendary.

I had the privilege of meeting him only once. It was at a party after a concert of Ned Rorem's liturgical music at an Anglican Church service. My teacher at the time was a familiar acquaintance of his, so I got introduced. Being not even 20 and in awe of his talent and career, my memory of the conversation is fairly hazy. But what I do remember is blathering something about how phenomenal his music was. Obviously he'd heard this 14.7 kajillion times and was visibly annoyed at the platitude. So he smirked, "Really? I'm quite moved. What's your favorite piece?" After thinking hurriedly about an answer that would impress him -- the atonal piano music, that one piece with the flute -- and then seeing him realize all the wind had left my sails, I meekly whispered, "West Side Story."
"The musical or
The Symphonic Dances?"

He had me backed into a corner, literally. So I mustered a bit of courage and muttered, "It's not a musical, Maestro. It's an opera. But to be honest, I think I prefer listening to Symphonic Dances because it fascinates me how you re-orchestrated the music without all the singing and it's still abundantly satisfying and complete. Of course, I'm one of the few people who actually prefers the original, very small orchestration of Copeland's Appalachian Spring, where it's just flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, and a few string players." (If I'm not mistaken [not googling], it's 2 fiddles, a viola, a cello and a double bass. And if it is just 2 fiddles, it's an orchestration conundrum because one of the first things you learn in Orchestration 101 is that you use either 1 fiddle or 3 fiddles -- never just 2 because of intonation problems. I'd go on but I'd need a chart and some masking tape to make it clearer.)

He leaned in slightly, smiling guiltily, and said, "I hate the full orchestration of Appalachian Spring. It's so heavy and overbearing. The original is so immediate, so intimate." I knew excactly what he meant.

I think I must've caught him off guard. Thank god. This was around the time that 2 things had happened: 1.) The Met had staged that heaping pile of dog crap also known as Porgy And Bess; and 2.) PBS had produced a documentary of the making of a new West Side Story recording with the big name opera stars of the day: Kiri Te Kanawa, Josep Carreras, Titiana Troyanas (Barf!) . I felt I had nothing to lose and, therefore, fearless (not really -- I was terrified: This was Lenny), continued on.

"Why on earth would the record producers, even for just an album, cast a kiwi from New Zealand as the latino Maria, and a Spanish tenor with an unmistakably heavy accent as the American Tony?" My teacher inhaled quickly, thinking to himself I can only imagine, "Midwesterners."
Lenny said something like (and I'm paraphrasing here), "Yeah-mmm-eh-oy-fuck."

If you've ever seen the PBS documentary, it's some of the most uncomfortable music-making on film. At one point, tenor Carreras storms off the soundstage during the recording of "Maria", presumably because it's the first time in his life he realizes that, like most singers, he can't fucking count. Lenny wasn't happy.

I have vivid memories of 3 things that happened in that documentary that I've seen only once over 20 years ago (which I watched with my dad! Closure?): The Carreras counting moment, after which Lenny hung his head in his hands; Lenny going off on Stephen Sondheim (I think) about an orchestration change that hadn't been made (Steve was the librettist, so... Hmm); and one of the producers, after they'd just recorded one of the numbers, thinking he'd heard a flashbulb go off, losing it, saying something along the lines of, "Did someone just take a picture while we were rolling? Did I hear a flashbulb!? Anybody who takes a picture while we're rolling is gonna take a bullet." Ouch.

Emboldened, I asked, "Do you think, now that The Met has staged [that heaping pile of dog crap also known as (like I'd actually say that to him)] Porgy And Bess, that they'll finally produce
West Side Story?
I swear his eyes twinkled. But then, "No. Not in my lifetime."

Leonard Bernstein doesn't just talk to anyone. But folks reared in the midwest generally have this tactless sense of sincerity that endears us to others, but only when we're not in the midwest, and especially when we're in "the big city". I'd never seen the score to West Side Story, and the icky rose wine I'd had (this was New York in the 80s -- nobody cared; I suspect Dennis Russell Davies was on line 3 in the adjacent bedroom, and he wasn't talking on the phone) gave me a bit of courage.

"How do you get the pit orchestra to swing? Is the syncopation notated rhythmically, or do you just tell them to swing?"
He laughed.
"He [me] comes from a jazz background," my teacher apologized.

Getting classical musicians to swing is like trying to make Baptists dance and drink at the same time while using profanity during sex in any position other than "missionary" more than once a month. I.e., it's a pretty tall order. But with that question -- honest, sincere, pointed, meaningful (i.e., a good question) -- I'd endeared myself to this genius.

"It's notated. Classical musicians can't swing. You have to spell it out for them literally."

True: Classical musicians, minus The Chronos Quartet, are pretty square. But unlike singers, they can fucking count. Those motherfuckers can count like you wouldn't believe. Especially percussionists. They're practically psychic. (Duh.)

West Side Story and, by default, Symphonic Dances From West Side Story, is complicated music, even by 20th standards. It melds jazz, movie music, musical theater music, opera, contemporary concert music, latino dance music and popular music all together seamlessly, effortlessly. Not surprising from someone for whom composing, conducting, piano playing and all-around serious music advocating and educating came so effortlessly and easily.

And the choreography of Jerome Robbins, dancer/producer/communist sympathizer/stool pigeon/fag/self-loathing pseudo-Jew/foot breaker/loving husband, ain't too shabby either. (I don't think anyone associated with the production ever forgave him. They knew why he sang; I mean he practically had to finger his friends, considering the circumstances he was in. But I don't think they could forgive him.)

Bernstein wasn't a national treasure. He was a national gold mine, one that continues to enrich thoughtful listeners with an appreciation for those people like Lenny who not only get to do what they love and get paid for it; folks like Lenny are so demoralizing to the rest of us mediocre doofuses because he was so much better than anyone else at it by margins that approach the unrealistic. A true God amongst us mere mortals, like Roger Federer. (Although I think GerFed was a bit taller. I think.)

Most people who know me are still shocked at how much I love West Side Story because they know I'm the worst sort of musical snob. Since it's Lenny's most commercial endeavor and arguably his most successful project, they immediately discount its artistic merit based solely on those criteria. What they forget in all that messy thinking is that it was a project near and dear to his heart and, therefore, one which he threw himself whole-heartedly into and one in which much of his soul resides even today. So how could I not love it realizing all that?

"Very nice to have met you, young man. Good luck to you."

I think we can all be pretty sure who made out better in the exchange that day. I still think West Side Story is the best thing he ever wrote, on so many levels (musical, sociological, psychological) and for so many reasons (complexity rendered inevitable, beauty as both means and end, music enlisting and emboldening choreography as opposed to choreography having to apologize for music). And you know what? I think Lenny would agree with me on this one.

Happy 50th birthday, West Side Story. You don't look (or sound) and day over 35.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to go over to Arts & Life and watch Slate drop yet another ball. Again.

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