Tag Archives: Leonard Bernstein

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Going Solo

                          Leonard Bernstein

There must be nothing quite so daunting as standing in the wings, alone and ready to face high expectations.

All of us have experienced what it’s like to be the main event. The stakes can be small, as in a presentation to a class.  Or they can get quite large, if hundreds or potentially thousands are interested in what you have to say or sing.

We should reserve special appreciation to performers who are essentially solo acts, carrying the weight of an anticipated event on the strength of their singular effort. Among other challenges, there must be nothing quite so daunting as being a singer, standing in the wings, ready to perform songs that everyone thinks they already know. Pyrotechnics and backup singers can help bale out a weak pop performer. But most audiences are sophisticated enough to detect the difference between the real deal and a performance that seems less than authentically live.


Producer John McClure had clearly not counted on the slow humiliation of Carreras

The opening of West Side Story a few days ago in New York reminded me of a lonely moment for a performer singing the same show in 1984.  The  Spanish opera star Jose Carreras was in RCA’s New York studios with other singers and an orchestra recording Leonard Bernstein’s score of the musical for the prestigious Deutsche Gramophone label.  Of course no one less than the composer himself was on hand to conduct.  Bernstein had never had the chance to lead a cast through the music of his  show.

The label apparently thought that it would be a nice touch to make a video of some of the studio work as the tracks were carefully laid down.  But producer John McClure had clearly not counted on the slow humiliation of Carreras trying to sing Something’s Coming as the teenage Tony. Carreras simply couldn’t get the tricky rhythm woven throughout the score, one that was second nature to Bernstein. Sitting in the control room, McClure takes his own lumps from the maestro.

Take after take is botched and increasingly registered on the face of a frustrated Bernstein. Not only was Carreras’ diction alien and too formal for the Hell’s Kitchen character, but his execution of the dotted-note rhythms was blocky rather than the “hip.” Classical orchestras and singers generally have a hard time performing the looser and more improvisational style of American pop and jazz.  And this was surely Bernstein’s version of jazz.

People looking at the clip on YouTube at the bottom of this piece will find a singer from a different cultural and musical heritage whose ear was apparently never trained to hear generic syncopation that dominated American music when Bernstein wrote his score. It wasn’t that the music was supposed to swing. But it needed a kind of breathless spontaneity that was nonetheless in perfect time.  Had Carreras grown up listening to Mel Torme or Sammy Davis Jr., he probably would have been fine.

The program that aired on PBS raised the ire of many who thought Bernstein was being purposefully difficult.  I don’t see that.  But we do see what happens when a label and conductor miscast a piece in order to have a big name to splash on their album cover.

Carreras has gone on to have an impressive career in the operatic realm he has so easily mastered.

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The Perfect Note?

It is an intriguing idea that we have a natural affinity for certain sounds, shapes and forms.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the attraction that the pitch of B-flat major has for humans. For years musicians and some scientists have speculated that this single note shows up as the home key in a lot music, as well as other non-musical parts of our lives.  Is B-flat our homing frequency?  What accounts for all of the major pieces of music written in this key?  Is it an accident that a black hole in deep space seems to “sing” that note, albeit some 50-plus octaves below the pitch we know as middle C? Is it more than a coincidence  that our electrical system “hums” at 60 hz (cycles per second), close to the audible lower octave B-flat? And should we make anything out of the anecdotal evidence offered by some that human structures seem to sustain sound especially well in the neighborhood of the same pitch?

Actor Ethan Hawke’s interesting documentary Seymour: an Introduction (2014) includes a passionate pianist who is impressed by how many  composers were drawn to producing  works in the key of B-flat major, including concertos and symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Schumann, Prokofiev and others. Is it the perfect note: a kind of passkey that resonates with something inside, as the opening of  Brahms Piano Concerto in B flat major.

A slightly broader question was asked by the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the first of his still fascinating Norton Lectures given at Harvard in the early 70s (available on YouTube). He argued that the idea in linguistics of an “innate grammatical competence” that allows even young children to form sentences may have its counterpart in how we are  “tuned” to the intervals that make up tonal music. The idea is that we already “know” a harmonic series like a triad of C, G and E without having to learn it.  Any set of notes built off the overtones of a low first note always sounds “right.”  We expect a simple musical work to find its way along what music theorists call the “circle of fifths” within a chromatic or diatonic scale.

To be sure, a more specific theory asserting a special affinity for a single absolute pitch has its problems.  After all, Mozart’s B-flat was lower than ours. In his time the nearby tuning note of A was more likely to be around 420 hz rather than the more standardized 440 hz today.  But it is an intriguing idea that we may have a natural synchronicity to natural sounds, shapes and forms.  Think of how easily we associate music composed in a minor key as darker and more solemn.  When a tune “resolves” in a major interval it tends to perk us up.  We don’t have to be trained to notice the effect. Most of us are born into this world discovering that we have an unquenchable thirst to hear modulations of sound that build out from (and occasionally violate) music’s fixed chromatic intervals.

The motive to confirm a ‘hard-wired’ need is naturally interesting, leaving us at the doorstep of a theory of forms. Consider the rhyme that falls at the end of a second line of a poem; or the AABA structure of a pop song that so easily satisfies our expectations by delivering the “B” refrain; or the third act resolution of conflict that developed and festered in Act II.  All are narrative forms that have become routine templates for thought. They sink their claws into us (or were they already there?).

It would might take some magical thinking to identify a form that is as controlling on us as something like the inviolate laws of physics. Even so, the question of identifying perfect resonances–responses tuned to our essences as humans–is intriguing.  We are usually better at naming specific human processes than single universals that may function as reliable North Stars. To be sure, religion fills this need for many. But it’s exciting to consider the idea of a physical property that exerts an enigmatic and irresistible pull.  If we need a visual reference, perhaps form as “deep structure” is perhaps like the inscrutable black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968). The possibility that anything can be the organizing principle that animates the rest of our world is always exciting.

    Still from 2001: a Space Odyssey