I was too involved with Wayne Shorter to pay much attention to the Leonard Bernstein centennial. (They were born on the same day.)
I love certain things, of course. A 7th-grade trip to see West Side Story at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre was a signal event in my development. At one point I listened to “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” quite a bit; I remember playing that for Mark Turner at my apartment over 20 years ago. Candide has its moments, so does The Age of Anxiety. “Lonely Town” is in my regular repertoire of solo piano pieces, and once I was rehearsal pianist for Joshua Bell when Bell was preparing Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium), which many consider Bernstein’s best concert work.
After all these years I can see the seams, the inexpert counterpoint, the lesser moments of appropriating black culture. But probably Bernstein will forever be at the center of 20th-century American music, and most of the time he does a pretty good job of managing the melting pot.
RIP George Walker. Just this year I played his wonderful early violin sonata with Miranda Cuckson; there is also a DTM interview that was done over email. When preparing for the interview I listened to scads of Walker and decided I loved the tonal music from the 50s best. His later atonal music has obvious excellence, but it might not be as committed as Ralph Shapey or Charles Wuorinen.
Walker was also a virtuoso pianist. The recently released live concert of the Emperor Concerto is shocking, a mighty traversal that ranks with the best. Yet Walker self-produced most of his own studio recordings, and sometimes they are rather raw. When working the violin sonata I learned that the editing of the recording by Walker and his son has a couple of major flaws.
Understanding Walker in totality is difficult. In my view, the best thing to do is acquire Walker’s astounding and masterful book, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist. It really should be required reading. And, to tie it in with his slightly older peer: There is a hysterical bit about Lenny.
Mlle. [Nadia] Boulanger also invited her Wednesday class to attend a rehearsal of one of the French orchestras that Leonard Bernstein had been engaged to conduct. The rehearsal was scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. At 10:25 Bernstein still had not shown up.
The first work to be played was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 5. When he finally arrived, Bernstein began to conduct and play the solo keyboard part from memory. In the middle of the first movement he couldn’t remember the solo part. He didn’t have the score. (Up the creek without a paddle.) The orchestra decided to proceed with the next work, Gershwin’s “American in Paris.” It was reported later that Bernstein had been shopping for a red leather jacket prior to the rehearsal.
Randy Weston has also passed. I’ve never done a deep dive, but everyone who loves jazz knows that Weston is a crucial figure. I especially admire the 50’s work with Cecil Payne, who was a virtuoso contrasting with the thinker, kind of like Johnny Griffin with Thelonious Monk. African Cookbook has some thrilling Booker Ervin and a rare example of the great Ray Copeland. The late solo albums have gravitas and mystery, in a kind of Andrew Hill-to-Geri Allen spectrum, and the disc with Melba Liston arrangements is a major statement. The autobiography African Rhythms with Willard Jenkins is also highly recommended.
There’s nothing for me to add about Aretha Franklin that hasn’t been said better by others — except maybe to note that The Blues Brothers does not hold up! Damn. I loved that movie as a young teenager, but now all I see are flaws.
Alex Ross, The Sounds of Music
Johanna Keller, Pulitzer Compass Key to Mapping American Music
Mark Stryker, Don Was, Dave McMurray Keep Telling Detroit’s Story
Wesley Morris, Aretha Franklin Had Power. Did We Truly Respect It?