This weekend, it’s a ‘Wonderful Town’

02.05.09
Jamie Bernstein
Daily Messenger

It’s a question Jamie Bernstein and her siblings have gotten used to hearing by now: When did they realize that their father wasn’t just their dad — but one of the major creative forces of the 20th century?


All it took was a trip to Bedrock.

“There was a moment we realized it — it was when we were watching ‘The Flintstones,’” Bernstein said. “Betty and Wilma were going to the Hollyrock Bowl to hear ‘Leonard Bernstone.’” She laughed: “That’s when we realized that he had hit the big time.”

Indeed he had. Composer, conductor, pianist and educator Leonard Bernstein, who would have been 90 this year, remains one of the chief figures in American music. His oeuvre is immense and diverse: stage musicals (such as “On the Town” and the ubiquitous “West Side Story”); symphonic compositions; choral pieces; chamber music; an accomplished career as a conductor encompassing the work of most major composers (Mahler, Ives, Copland and Gershwin in particular); a long relationship with the New York Philharmonic; and more than 50 “Young People’s Concerts” that introduced younger audiences to classical music.

On any given day, perhaps any given hour, work by or associated with Bernstein is probably being performed somewhere. Case in point: This weekend — as Jamie Bernstein joins with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra to present works from four of her father’s musicals — elsewhere in the metro area Greece Athena students and teachers will perform “West Side Story” at their school and the Hochstein Youth Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia will perform works of Bernstein and other American creators at the Hochstein Performance Hall.

For the RPO show — the latest in the WPOP series, with Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik at the baton — Jamie Bernstein will help the orchestra and its guest vocalists bring four of her father’s best-loved musicals to life. As narrator, she’ll take audiences on a tour of her father’s world by providing background information, anecdotes and synopses as the musicians perform music from “Candide,” “Wonderful Town,” “On the Town” and “West Side Story.”

“My job as a narrator is to provide a ‘clothesline,’ to kind of bring everything together,” she said. “I introduce the music from time to time, to provide some background information about each show and the songs that we’re sharing.”

For example, she will share some of the correspondence between her father and mother, pianist/actress Felicia Montealegre, from when he was working on “West Side Story.” Jamie was with her Chilean-born mother in South America at the time; she calls the letters “fantastic documents” that provide insight into the frequently difficult and contentious creative process for that show. She’ll point out various of her father’s compositional techniques — interweaving his “New York, New York” motif in the “Times Square” music from “On the Town,” for instance; or using the “Somewhere” theme under Tony and Maria’s “Tonight” duet in “West Side Story.”

Jamie Bernstein views her career and calling as following the pattern her father set with the Young People’s Concerts. It was in fact a deliberate pattern: In the late 1990s, her father’s publisher suggested that someone develop a Young People’s-style program devoted to Bernstein’s music, a program to offer symphony orchestras like the RPO. She thought it was a great idea and teamed up with her friend Michael Barrett — once her father’s assistant conductor — to create a program. Barrett focused on the musical end of the program; Bernstein on the biographical and anecdotal. “We had to split in half what my father did all by himself!” she said.

With such a large and diverse body of work to his credit, did Leonard Bernstein have a particular favorite, one he considered a masterpiece?

According to Jamie Bernstein, he would often demur and say they were all his children — “but if he were really pressed, he would often refer to ‘Mass.’” That piece, commissioned for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, was based on a Catholic liturgical mass and included choirs (including a children’s choir), a marching band, a rock band, dancers and more in a musical meditation on a crisis of faith. “At the time, it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” Jamie Bernstein said, in its mixing of genres and the juxtaposition with the Latin Mass. (The then music critic at the New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg, was particularly brutal, likening it to “steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce.”) But later, she noted, no less than Pope John Paul II requested it be performed — in the Vatican.

“Because it’s such an odd duck and was often misunderstood from the beginning, it had a special place in his heart,” she said. “This year it has gotten some performances” including a revival on Carnegie Hall.

What’s her own favorite among her father’s works?

“Whichever one I’m hearing at the time,” she said — but adding, “There’s nothing on earth like ‘West Side Story.’ It’s the work where all of his multiple talents came together most expressively. His ability to write fully composed, fully orchestrated music rooted in the classical approach to composition — combined with his ability to write a tune and his innate sense of rhythm; he writes fabulous dance music ... it was sort of an alignment of the planets; all of these things that came together.” Including, she noted, his stellar collaborators: lyricist Stephen Sondheim, playwright/librettist Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins.

“We’re all jumping up and down with excitement — it’s having its Broadway revival,” she added. A new production will open at New York City’s Palace Theatre on March 19, with the 91-year-old Laurents — fresh off an acclaimed revival of “Gypsy” with Patti LuPone — at the helm. “Arthur Laurents is peaking at 91!” Bernstein exclaimed.

Jamie Bernstein’s projects aren’t limited to her father’s music. She does similar narration programs for various composers: Mozart, Copland, William Walton and more; hosts several broadcasts; lectures and writes.

“It became a sort of surprise career,” she said.