Prelude, Fugue & Riffs

Lenny Remembered


by Kenneth LaFave

In 1985, I took a job writing press releases for The New York Philharmonic. It was a helluva position for a guy right out of music grad school and fresh from the backwoods of Tucson, Arizona. I'd sit at my desk on the fourth floor of Avery Fisher Hall penning releases about this concert or that, while rehearsals were piped in from the hall below. This was so I could hear when the breaks came, in case I needed to run downstairs and get musicians' permissions for photographs and quotes.

One day, the music over the intercom was Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, a short, simple piece known forward and backward by most lovers of American music. Zubin Mehta, the Philharmonic's music director, was leading the rehearsal. I sat concentrating on a release about the upcoming concerts celebrating Copland's 85th birthday, vaguely aware that the rehearsal had come to an unscheduled stop. Then all of a sudden, it started up again, and when it did, I literally jumped in my seat. It was still the Copland Fanfare, but... different, transformed, re-energized, bold. The music had taken on a new sense of urgency.

Leonard Bernstein, the orchestra's Laureate Conductor, had taken over the rehearsal.

That was Bernstein the conductor. I treasured his performances of Mahler, of the American symphonists, of Haydn and Schumann. I treasured even more Bernstein the composer. "There is no more beguiling melodist," my teacher Ned Rorem wrote of Bernstein on the occasion of Lenny's 70th birthday.

Bernstein's uniquely enchanting gift owed largely, in my view, to the congruence of his particular talents with the mood and musical language of New York City in the 1940s and '50s, and specifically the harmonic pungency and rhythmic kick of the Broadway musical. The musical was the lingua franca that made possible a constant cross-pollination between commercial and non-commercial music in that era. Like George Gershwin before him, Bernstein wrote for the popular stage and the concert hall, without any fundamental change in melodicharmonic- rhythmic method.

As evidence, consider the middle movement of Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. The main melody was originally set to a completely different text for an abandoned musical, with lyrics by the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Yet it makes the transition from Broadway to sacred concert work without anyone being the wiser. Then there's a theme in the scherzo of Bernstein's Symphony No. 2: Age of Anxiety, which had earlier been a song called Ain't Got No Tears Left, again with words by Comden and Green.

No memories of Lenny Bernstein would be complete without recalling the way he loved to talk to people about music. This was Bernstein the Educator. Some have said it was Lenny's ego that led him to speak at length about music, about composers' lives, about the arts and what they mean to us. I say nay. It was Lenny's absolute and uncompromising love for music that urged him to speak about it. One evening before a concert at the New York Philharmonic, Mahler's Seventh led by Lenny, we could not find him. By "we" I mean the backstage personnel, including yours truly, who were in charge of making sure everyone was in their places and ready to go at concert time. Lenny wasn't in his dressing room and we couldn't locate him at any of the usual backstage spots. Finally, we found him in a darkened corner backstage, talking about Mahler... to the janitor. The janitor was mesmerized – and perhaps somewhat baffled – as he listened to Lenny exult about music and nature and what it means to be a musician.

Lenny wanted everyone to love music as he did, and so he spared no energy performing music, composing music, and educating people about how music relates to our most basic experiences as humans. Bernstein took a lot of criticism for not sticking to one musical discipline, but in my book his appetite for all aspects of music was indicative of a large soul, of an unqualified capacity for love and life. We'll never see his like again.

Kenneth LaFave is a composer and writer whose recent works include the percussion concerto, Canto de Alba, and Diet! The Musical. This tribute originally appeared at his blog, composerlafave.typepad.com.


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