Simanaitis Says

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LET’S CELEBRATE the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. In fact, let’s do it in Part 1 today and Part 2 tomorrow. Bernstein’s immense talents have given pleasure in so many ways: serious modern music, music for the theater, music for the movies, and musical education stretching back to his taking classes in conducting from the famed Serge Koussevitzky in 1940.

Leonard Bernstein, 1918–1990, American composer, conductor, pianist, author, and educator par excellence. Image by Paul de Hueck/Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc., from NRP Music.

Bernstein’s conducting career began at short notice on November 14, 1943, when he filled in, without rehearsal, for the ill Bruno Walter. Bernstein was 25. The next day, The New York Times reported, “It’s a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves.”

Indeed, Bernstein’s triumphs soon spread far around the world. “The Complex Life of Leonard Bernstein, A Once-In-A-Century Talent” in NPR Music gives details. For instance, Bernstein’s own compositions, Jeremiah Symphony and Fancy Free ballet, followed in 1944. That same year, Fancy Free was transformed into Broadway hit On the Town.

What follows here and tomorrow are tidbits of my Bernstein favorites, more or less in the order of my encountering them: his Omnibus TV discussion of the blues; Fancy Free ballet, Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” and theatrical productions Trouble in Tahiti, Candide, and Peter Pan.

Bernstein on the Blues. My own personal education in the liberal arts began with TV’s brilliantly well-done Omnibus, a weekly program running from 1952 to 1961. This program, hosted by Alistair Cooke, introduced me to Aaron Copland, St. Thomas Aquinas, Orson Welles—and Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein on the Blues, October 16, 1955.

I was not quite 13 years old, already interested in the blues, and I learned from Leonard Bernstein that its authentic form was iambic pentameter, the same glorious cadence of Shakespeare’s I will not be afraid of death and bane/Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane.

Years later at R&T, I used to sing a Blues for Friday Afternoon. It went, Tis time that we should all rise up and git/I say, tis time that we should all rise up and git/And ponder all the nonsense we’ve just writ. Thanks, Maestro, for the inspiration.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll pick up with Fancy Free, West Side Story, Trouble in Tahiti, and other Bernstein, none of them troubling in any way. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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