Irving — The Leonard Bernstein Centenary continues to celebrate the accomplished genius with concerts and performances nationwide. As ever, this kind of global festival focuses on the music more than the man. The music is, after all, the main achievement of a composer’s career and is the most easily reconstructed. It is the most readily available legacy of a composer’s life.
But Bernstein was different. He was as much celebrity as he was composer, as much teacher and scholar as he was a technician, and as much activist as he was musician. The Bernstein that is remembered is often a personal one—a looming and dramatic figure seen in a public appearance or on television and never forgotten. In so doing he left a rich footprint of ideas and thoughts—not just a superb catalogue of concert pieces. There are films of Lenny, books by Lenny, lectures by Lenny and interviews with Lenny, all of which can be gleaned to attempt to find the person behind the achievement. And fortunately for all of us, there is a large body of correspondence spanning almost his entire adult life available in published form (The Leonard Bernstein Letters, Yale University Press 2013).
To Sam Brukhman, the ever-creative founder and director of Dallas-based chorus Verdigris Ensemble, the letters provided a unique source of celebration for the group’s contribution to the continuing festival. Their upcoming concert, Lenny Lenny Lenny! features a bevy of choral works punctuated by excerpts from Bernstein’s letters written at the same time. In so doing, the concert searches for the context of the music. The concert, happening Oct. 6 with the Irving Chorale and Oct. 21 with Temple Emanu-El Choirm explores a possible relationship between what Bernstein was living and what his music is reflecting. While talking about the program, Brukhman points to two examples:
“In one case, he is writing to a childhood friend about how annoying he finds the music department at Harvard. He writes about hating all the confusion and lack of responsibility. Around the same time, he was composing a piece called I Hate Music. He may have been making fun of his own emotions at the time.
“A more poignant example is found in letters to and from his wife, Felicia, which discuss the state of their marriage and the awareness of his homosexuality. His wife, in essence, says she understands and still loves him. These letters are from the same time as he is composing West Side Story, including the amazingly affirming “Somewhere.” We’re not saying there is a direct tie, that he wrote the piece because of what’s happening in the letters, but it interesting to see how his moods are reflected in the music he was creating at the time.”
The broad scope of the letters gives Verdigris an opportunity to entire span of Bernstein’s life. Brukhman explains, “The collection begins from his college years and goes until a few weeks before his death. By picking letters from a variety of time periods in his life, we were able to include music from his whole professional career.” Brukhman chose some more familiar songs for performance, like pieces from West Side Story or Chichester Psalms, but he also emphasized some of the lesser known gems from the Bernstein catalogue, such as solos from On the Town and Arias and Barcarolles.
The emphasis of Lenny Lenny Lenny! is very much on the person behind the music. “While we were preparing the concert, people we knew and talked to were so involved with their memories of Bernstein. Congregants at the synagogue [Temple Emmanu-El, where the Oct. 21 performance is] for instance were gushing about him, remembering him not just as a “musical genius” but also for his fame and his energy. You could feel their attachment to his human side.”
Looking for the human side of anyone, but particularly a man of such enormous personality is a fraught exercise. Brukhman admits, “The letters show his struggles and some of the less desirable traits of the man. For instance, he was deeply desperate after West Side Story because he was told he could never compose anything as great again. So he spent years trying to compete with his own legacy. The letters show the doubt and the anguish.”
They also can show sides of a human being that may not be presentable in all settings. Although some are as innocuous as a letter of birthday congratulations from Frank Sinatra, others can be raw and even profane. Brukhman had to make delicate choices in presenting the letters to fit his audiences. But he feels nevertheless that the full range of Bernstein’s humanity is able to push through. If anything, the darker sides reflected in the letter make Bernstein a more compelling character. “The take-away from the concert is that a genius can still struggle. The flaws define both the humanity and the genius of the person. This is a relief more than anything, because the struggle and the imperfection make Bernstein more approachable and his music more understandable.”
“The most amazing thing about this concert is how captivating the subject is,” Brukhman concludes. “As the chorus has really started working on the program, you can see how the music is bringing them together as an ensemble. And the performances we have done of small portions of the concert have been met with tears and joy. I think this will be a very emotional experience for both the audience and the performers.”
Those of us with vivid memories of Leonard Bernstein should recognize these emotions and welcome the way Lenny Lenny Lenny! recaptures the peculiarly human magic of the great man.
The concerts are:
7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018
In Collaboration with Irving Chorale
Plymouth Park United Methodist Church
615 Airport Fwy, Irving, TX 75062
7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018
In Collaboration with Temple Emanu-El Choir
8500 Hillcrest Ave.