The musical ingredients of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival were low-key and not remarkably enterprising. Even A Bernstein Celebration, which seemed to want to be the festival’s central musical event, came off as something of a knee-jerk occasion. I know, Leonard Bernstein would have been 80 this month, and his hometown had to mark the date somehow, but how much imagination does it take to hit on the idea of celebrating America’s most famous musician, one whose whole life was a frantically orchestrated fiesta? Besides, his colorful legacy, already tirelessly promoted by his family and those with a commercial stake in it, has enough built-in energy to sustain itself. What this celebration lacked in any case was a major-focus event that might put a fresh perspective on such an overexposed figure – a first New York performance of A White House Cantata perhaps, an effort to salvage the best music from Bernstein’s spectacular 1976 Broadway flop, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Or even another attempt to discipline that perennially unruly problem child, Candide, would have been welcome, if only in concert.
Under the banner of “Bernstein: Composer and Champion,” the Philharmonic led by Kurt Masur offered two predictable concerts in honor of its former music director: His first two symphonies together with music by Mahler, Copland, Gershwin, and Ives, scores closely identified with Bernstein the conductor. Any maestro would probably be disadvantaged presiding over such programs, especially on this memory-charged occasion, and Masur hardly has the American concert idiom in his blood. Still, it was instructive to hear the two symphonies again. I’ve never much cared for the sweaty lamentations of the Jeremiah Symphony, in which the 25-year-old composer seems to be self-consciously trying to meet the high expectations of two stern paternal figures, his actual father and conductor Serge Koussevitsky. The Age of Anxiety Symphony is a more original and characteristically exuberant piece, particularly if one just listens to the music and ignores the W. H. Auden poem that the score so diligently attempts to mirror.
“The Unknown Bernstein” was the subject of a concert prepared and presented by pianist-conductor Michael Barrett, one of the great man’s close musical associates during his last years. Nothing startling was unveiled in this subdued program consisting mainly of amiable scraps from Bernstein’s bottom drawer: brief piano pieces written for family and friends; songs cut from musicals; and two chamber arrangements, Halil, a late work originally for flute and orchestra, and the two meditations from Mass. Unlike some composers, whose unpublished posthumous manuscripts often reveal major treasures, Bernstein apparently gave us everything he had while he was alive.
The meatiest event was presented by the Eos chamber orchestra conducted by Jonathan Sheffer, which performed three scores that may well prove to be Bernstein’s most enduring contributions to the concert repertory: the Serenade for violin, the Dybbuk ballet, and Songfest, a collection of songs set to texts by a diverse group of American poets. Like virtually everything Bernstein wrote, these pieces have a literary basis, and all three show how passionately he responded to words and ideas when they truly fired his imagination. The Serenade is in effect an ingeniously plotted violin concerto reflecting the profound discussion of love at Plato’s famous dinner party in the Symposium. Dybbuk may be the composer’s toughest compositional nut to crack, a gnarled web of sound tightly woven from folk music, cantorial prayer, and serial techniques. It’s a shame that only excerpts from Songfest could be performed – this score may be Bernstein’s masterpiece, distinguished by both its careful workmanship and deep expressive resonance. Anyone who could write three such imposing scores would have to be numbered among America’s finest composers.