Leonard Bernstein once said, “music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.” He would know. As composer, his hundreds of works include the score for Broadway’s On the Town, Candide and a landmark American musical, West Side Story.
In March, TMTP returns to Cleveland Institute of Music’s Mixon Hall for a new multi-media concert, “Bernstein on Broadway,” focusing on his songs for the theater, written with lyricists including Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alan Jay Lerner and the young Stephen Sondheim.
Bill Rudman and Nancy Maier will co-host, and they’ll have lots of company on stage. Cleveland composer Ty Alan Emerson has arranged the maestro’s lush music for a seven-piece chamber ensemble, conducted by Nancy. And the songs will be performed by three vocalists: local favorite Sheri Gross, Baldwin Wallace University Music Theatre student Sara Masterson, and BWU faculty member Benjamin Czarnota, making his TMTP debut.
Bernstein’s multi-faceted career spanned 50 years and encompassed theater music, film and ballet scores, operas and symphonies. And he became a beloved household name as the music director of the New York Philharmonic. His 53 televised “Young People’s Concerts” became the most popular and influential series of music appreciation programs ever produced for that medium.
I spoke with Nancy and Ty about preparing for the concert and getting to know “Lenny” in the process.
JOANNA: What makes Leonard Bernstein not just a great composer, but a great theater composer?
NANCY: He valued the emotional power of music and explored all musical styles.
TY: That’s true, and he is a master of manipulating your expectations. Just when you are sure that the next musical thing will be X, he sidesteps and gives you something fresh which just keeps moving things along.
JOANNA: Jerome Robbins’s choreography in West Side Story and On The Town has become just as iconic as the music. What about Bernstein’s music, specifically his rhythms, lends itself so well to dance?
NANCY: The earthiness, the changing rhythms and meters, and the way he wrote so authentically not only in symphonic styles, but also in pop and ethnic styles.
TY: Bernstein loved dance. So much of his work utilizes some kind of motor and syncopation. His love of life comes through as does his sense of play, especially with those odd-ball phrases, additional beats and cross-rhythms.
JOANNA: Bernstein always seemed to have one foot in the classical world and the other on Broadway. Nancy, talk about the term “crossover” as it applies to his music and the singing style required to execute it, and why his repertoire is so rewarding to perform.
NANCY: Bernstein respected all styles of music, but his classical background led him to write in ways that are challenging to singers in their range and in their complexity of meter, harmony and melody. Therefore, many of the theater songs require solid technique and musical training to do them justice, as well as an actor’s understanding of the importance of communicating the words and emotional content. It is exciting to sing quality songs with deep sentiment and great beauty and lyricism. Our three vocalists are perfectly cast for this repertoire.
JOANNA: Many of our Song Is You! concerts only call for Nancy at the piano. Why was it crucial for Ty to arrange Bernstein’s music for a larger ensemble?
TY: Bernstein screams “orchestra”! His music is full of various lines and colors; he was a great composer. By providing more robust arrangements than are typically heard in TMTP concerts, we get a chance to bring out those internal musical ideas. Some have been burned into our musical memory because of the orchestration. Who can hear the opening fanfare from the Overture to Candide on anything other than a trumpet? We’ll use piano, bass and percussion and add those colors with violin, cello, trumpet and flute.
JOANNA: Do you have a favorite Bernstein piece?
TY: One of my favorites is Trouble in Tahiti for his wit and subtle sense of humor while addressing complex social issues.
NANCY: I think “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story is just perfectly written and exciting.
JOANNA: We are also covering some of Bernstein’s Mass. While unknown to many, it is beloved by theater insiders. Why do you think that is and what are your feelings on the piece?
TY: It’s about the struggle of modern life as Bernstein experienced it, and an extraordinary working out of musical, political and spiritual themes.
NANCY: The work was created without restraint, and it explores a great interest of his: the spiritual crisis of our time. It creates a powerful impact with its range of styles from rock band through Broadway to oratorio. His brilliant sense of theater is obvious throughout.
JOANNA: And what impact will Bernstein have on us after this concert?
NANCY: I hope audiences will be uplifted and have a new appreciation for this passionate conductor and composer. His works cross into all territories, but always with understanding and a commitment to the poetry and importance of music. Everything he did was with his whole heart.
TY: Bernstein is the first great Ameican Maestro, and a father to American music. He set a great example. It has been a joy to work on Lenny from the inside out.