Why West Side Story composer Leonard Bernstein resonates with 21st-century music lovers

By Terry Blain, The Star Tribune

As a composer, critics argued, Leonard Bernstein was a dabbler. A dilettante. A musical magpie who filched other people’s ideas. A part-time composer who hogged the spotlight as the New York Philharmonic’s flamboyant conductor.

“Bernstein does not compose with either originality or much skill,” wrote composer Virgil Thomson from his bully pulpit as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. “Melodic distinction” and “concentration of thought” were missing, Thomson added.

This was typical of the opposition Bernstein faced during his composing career.

With the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth this year, there are signs that the tide is finally turning.

Yes, there are abundant performances of West Side Story in the works, including one by the Minnesota Orchestra this week and another at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis this summer. But orchestras also are taking chances on lesser known Bernstein works.

“It’s great that I’m being asked to do things I wouldn’t normally be asked to do,” said conductor Andrew Litton, a Bernstein enthusiast who grew up watching the New York Philharmonic’s legendary Young People’s Concerts.

Litton will conduct two of his favorite Bernstein pieces with the Minnesota Orchestra in June. That includes the ballet Fancy Free, a brilliantly sassy jazz-classical fusion from 1944. Also on the program is Chichester Psalms, a choral work from 1965 that melds pop music with passages of symphonic intensity.

Naysayers often dismissed Bernstein as a composer of other people’s music. Litton said he doesn’t buy that criticism.

“As much as he loved to borrow musical ideas, much like his hero Gustav Mahler did, Bernstein was a genius at making them his own.”

One of Litton’s favorites is Dybbuk, a little known ballet from 1974 that sounds dissonant and progressive, with a less popular feel than Bernstein’s other works. “It’s a fascinating piece,” he said.

In addition to music flecked with jazz, pop and gospel, Bernstein also wrote three symphonies. Litton singled out the second, The Age of Anxiety, for special mention.

“I think it’s one of his great masterpieces. He can move you in a heartbeat of music, and the next minute make you laugh or dance —´ he’s an absolute genius at that.”

Could it be that Bernstein’s time as a composer has finally come? That the blurring of musical boundaries in the new millennium has made his work fashionable and relevant? With so much music available at the flick of a touch screen, listeners regularly make the kind of genre-hopping connections that came so naturally to Bernstein.

“The West Side Story mantle is being shed quite effectively,” Litton said. “I think Bernstein’s music is being taken more seriously now than when it was new. Time has certainly been Bernstein’s friend.”

A hugely ambitious piece for singers, dancers, electric guitars and orchestra, Bernstein’s Mass is a crucial work in the composer’s canon.

“Performances of his Mass used to be a rarity,” Litton said, "but now seem to be everywhere." The Kansas City, Cincinnati and Chicago symphonies will all present Mass this year, and performances also are scheduled in London, Vienna and Dortmund, Germany.

Litton continued, “I think that when we look back, Bernstein will be one of the three or four most celebrated American composers of the 20th century. He stands with Copland, Gershwin and Samuel Barber.”

“Bernstein wrote music that has become completely part of the fabric of our culture. For that he will always be remembered.”

Courtesy of The Star Tribune, February 9, 2018