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Leonard Bernstein: a survey of the orchestral works

(September 2016)

The run up to the centennial of Leonard Bernstein in 2018 offers the opportunity to explore the composer's orchestral works, from witty overtures, through theatrical suites, to full symphonic statements.

All three of Leonard Bernstein’s symphonies employ programmatic elements, drawing upon additional musical forces following the Mahlerian model. Symphony No.1 ‘Jeremiah’ was the composer’s first large-scale work, completed in 1942 when he was still in his early twenties. The wartime situation in Europe prompted parallels with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, lamented in the final movement by the mezzo soprano soloist. The Age of Anxiety (Symphony No.2) – inspired by Auden’s dramatic poem – fuses symphony, concerto and tone poem and features a prominent jazzy role for piano. ‘Kaddish’ Symphony No.3 combines the Hebrew-Aramaic prayer for soprano, mixed and boys’ choirs with English texts for a speaker exploring the relationship between man and God.

Although there are no traditionally titled concertos, Bernstein composed a wealth of music for solo instrument and orchestra. Other than The Age of Anxiety, all his concertante works are readily performable with small orchestra. The Serenade is Bernstein’s violin concerto as well as a hymn to love, preserving its place in the repertoire thanks to leading violinists including Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Midori and Anne Akiko Meyers. Halil is a nocturne with solo flute mourning the death of a young Israeli musician and the Three Meditations from Mass feature solo cello. Clarinet is in the spotlight for Prelude, Fugue & Riffs written for Benny Goodman and the Sonata for Clarinet and Orchestra. The Concerto for Orchestra is a showpiece for all sections, with gamesmanship from composer and performers leading to a closing benediction.

Bernstein’s theatre music is equally at home in the concert hall, with much on offer beyond the ubiquitous Candide Overture and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. His evergreen musical is also distilled into two suites, one with soprano and tenor, and the other with soloists and chorus. The New York theme continues with the Overture and Three Dance Episodes from On the Town and selections from Wonderful Town. Orchestral suites have also been drawn from his operetta Candide, the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the opera A Quiet Place.

In collaboration with Jerome Robbins (who shares the 2018 centennial), Bernstein created three dance scores that provide attractive concert fare. Music from Fancy Free, a pre-cursor of the high-spirited On the Town, is available in Three Dance Variations as well as the complete ballet, while the choreographic essay Facsimile offers a more psychological examination of romantic relations. In The Dybbuk Bernstein and Robbins explored Yiddish folk drama, heard in Suite No.2 as well as the complete ballet.

On the Waterfront was Bernstein’s only film score but is rightly regarded as a twentieth century classic, with Marlon Brando as a once-promising boxer held back by corruption and violence in the New Jersey dockyards. As well as the familiar suite, it can now be presented with live orchestra accompanying a screening of the film, offering audiences the complete score in the concert hall. Bernstein in a lighter vein is provided by his Divertimento and Slava! A Political Overture as lively alternatives to the Candide Overture.

For full information including licensing contacts view www.boosey.com/bernstein100brochure 

Other Bernstein centennial web surveys:
> Stageworks 
> Choral & Vocal works 


> Further information on Work: Symphony No.2: The Age of Anxiety

Photo: © Alfred Eisenstaedt

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