The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Two new memoirs and a new recording are revealing but uneven in marking the centennial of Leonard Bernstein

July 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

We are only a month away from the centennial of the birthday of conductor, composer, educator and pianist Leonard Bernstein, which will be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 25. Larry Wells, who is The Opera Guy for The Ear, recently assessed three of the many works – two new books of memoirs and one new recording — reexamining the life, career and legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

By Larry Wells

During this year commemorating the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell), one need only consult https://leonardbernstein.com to find a day-by-day calendar of performances of his works.

As well as world-wide opportunities to hear his works -– even in Madison — there have been two recent books about Bernstein and a new recording of his final opera, “A Quiet Place,” that might be worth your time.

“A Quiet Place” was premiered in Houston as a sequel to his earlier opera “Trouble in Tahiti.” These first performances were conducted by our own John DeMain, the longtime artistic director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Madison Opera.

This nearly two-hour one-act opera dealing with incest, bisexuality, alcoholism and psychosis did not please the critics either for its libretto or for its music.

Soon thereafter Bernstein refashioned the opera by inserting “Trouble in Tahiti” in the middle and cutting some music. His subsequent recording has always baffled me because the music is so uninteresting and the casting is so haphazard.

The new recording on the Decca label (below) is of yet another version devised by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Reducing the orchestration to a chamber ensemble of 18 players, removing “Trouble in Tahiti,” and restoring some of the cuts, this recording by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra allows us to hear most of the original version of the opera.

(To read Sunderland’s analysis of his edition, check https://leonardbernstein.com/uploads/pages/files/PFR_2013_FW.pdf.)

The new recording is a valiant attempt by Nagano (below) to breathe some life into this dreary work, but I remain unconvinced that “A Quiet Place” is any more than a failed, final stab by a composer most of whose work I admire very much.

Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s personal assistant, and his recent memoir ”On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” (below) goes a long way in explaining the failure of “A Quiet Place.” (You can hear the Postlude to Act I of “A Quiet Place” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To hear Harmon tell it, by this time in Bernstein’s life the maestro depended on drugs to go to sleep, drugs to keep himself awake, and alcohol in excess.  He also had a penchant for younger men.

The picture he paints of a troubled genius is rather pathetic, and Bernstein comes across as thoughtless, self-centered and exasperating. When Harmon (below, on the right with Bernstein) writes of his shock at being groped by Bernstein, I had to wonder what else he had expected. Still, it is an entertaining read.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein has recently published  “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (below) Here we get a glimpse into Bernstein’s family life. The portrait of his troubled relationship with his long-suffering wife Felicia Montealegre is particularly interesting.

I heard Jamie Bernstein (below) speak recently in Tucson, and she told amazing anecdotes about Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and William Schuman.

Little of that appears in the book. She assumes that the reader is interested in her own love life and her failed pop music career. I would have preferred to read more about the many fascinating people who surrounded Bernstein and less about her privileged and entitled life.

I have always been a big fan of Bernstein. I admired him as a conductor, teacher and composer. Anyone who has even a nominal interest in the man will find both of the recent memoirs at least diverting. The recording of “A Quiet Place,” however, is only for the true devotees.


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Classical music: Madison Youth Choir’s sixth annual Boychoir Festival is this Saturday. Plus, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet performs this Sunday at the Chazen Museum of Art

January 29, 2016
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ALERT: This month’s Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen, to start at 12:30 p.m. this Sunday, features the Wisconsin Brass Quintet from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music

The program includes music by  Johann Sebastian Bach, Giovanni Gabrieli, Ira Taxin, Ingolf Dahl and UW-Madison alumnus Andrew Rindfleisch.

Since Wisconsin Public Radio no longer carries the concerts live, you must either attend it FREE in the Brittingham Gallery No. 3 in the Chazen Museum of Art or stream it live on your computer. Here is a link to the museum’s web site to reserve seats and to listen live:

http://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-feb.-7-with-the-wisconsin-brass-quintet

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note from the Madison Youth Choirs:

“The Madison Youth Choirs, in partnership with Madison Metropolitan School District, will present the sixth annual FREE Madison Boychoir Festival this Saturday, Jan. 30, in the Stevens Gym at Madison West High School, 30 Ash St., starting at 12:30 p.m. 

(Below is a photo of middle school singers, conducted by Margaret Jenks, from last year’s festival. You can also hear excerpts in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Boychoir Festival 2015 Elem School Choir

“The festival is a day-long celebration of choral music for boys in grades 2-12, culminating in a free concert for the community.”

“We’re expecting a record number of well over 400 young men, ages 7-18, from across southern Wisconsin at this year’s festival, and recently also broke a new record for enrollment in MYC’s three yearlong performing boychoirs – a great sign for the culture of boys’ singing in our community!”

The program usually includes classical music, folk music and crossover or pop music. This year’s is no different. Here is the line-up:

COMBINED CHOIRS

Plato’s Take (sing in Greek) by Randal Swiggum

YOUTH CHOIR

Margaret Jenks, conductor; Andrew Johnson, piano/percussion

Banaha — Congolese folk song

MIDDLE LEVEL CHOIR

Randal Swiggum, conductor; Steve Radtke, piano; Zachary Yost, piccolo; Andrew Johnson, snare drum

“Riflemen of Bennington  Revolutionary War song, arr. Swiggum

 HIGH SCHOOL MEN’S CHOIR

Albert Pinsonneault, Michael Ross, conductors; Jess Salek, piano

Byker Hill, Traditional, arr. Sandler

THE MADISON BOYCHOIR

Randal Swiggum, Margaret Jenks, Michael Ross, conductors

Intonent Hodie, Anonymous (ca. 12th century)

COMBINED CHOIRS

Unity, by Glorraine Moore/Freddie Washington, arr. Cason

“Over 400 young singers, joined by the men of the Madison Choral Project (MCP), will present repertoire from a variety of cultural traditions and historical eras, exploring beyond notes and rhythms to discover the context, meaning and heart of the music. (Below is a photo of elementary school singers from the 2014 festival, conducted by Randal Swiggum.)

Boychoir Festival 2014 Middle School Choir

“This project is supported in part by the Madison Arts Commission, by the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts, and by Dane Arts with additional funding from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation.”

About Madison Youth Choirs (MYC)

“Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community.

“Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self -confidence, personal responsibility and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.”

For further information, visit www.madisonyouthchoirs.org or call (608) 238-7464


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