Leonard Bernstein had many talents and at the last meeting of the Society three of them were on vivid display in a presentation by Alan Forshaw. First was his ability as a pianist was shown in a recording, made in 1946, of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra from which we heard the first movement. It is no surprise Bernstein liked this piece with its strong jazz influences and powerful rhythms. We also heard him play one of his own compositions, Seven Anniversaries recorded in 1947.
His second great skill was as a conductor for which he was in great demand. He was the principal conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many years. Examples we heard included the second movement from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the NYPO with Bernstein conducting from the keyboard and also the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony.
He was an accomplished composer in a wide range of genres. Few may of heard of his Clarinet Sonata for example, his first composition. More familiar perhaps is his Symphony No. 1 from which we heard the second movement with its strong rhythms and echoes of Stravinsky. We also heard part of his Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra both recordings with the NYPO.
He was a composer of operas and first was Trouble in Tahiti – an opera in seven scenes – from which we heard scene 2. Candide did not achieve critical acclaim unfortunately and had to wait two decades before it found a place in the repertoire again. West Side Story is undoubtedly his most successful work, loved the world over and was made into a film. Two extracts were played: Tonight performed by Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa, and Somewhere, in a performance conducted by Bernstein himself.
Alan explained that Bernstein was the son of a Ukrainian immigrant and it is perhaps worth reflecting on the enormous contribution east European and Russian immigrants made to the life of the United States. Not just musicians, but scientists, writers, mathematicians and in many other areas of cultural life. As the UK is struggling with the ‘threat’ of immigrants fleeing Syria and other war torn areas, it is worth remembering on the benefits that they can bring, as Bernstein did to the USA and musical life generally.
This was an accomplished presentation which gave an insight into the range of talents Bernstein had and the musical legacy he has left behind. A musical polymath indeed.