We're coming up to the sixth of ten Zoom sessions on Leonard Bernstein, and I think all the students would agree that so far it's been a journey of incomparable richness (West Side Story next Thursday). One of the semi-incidental joys has been the possibility of reading or re-reading some of his sources; over the past three weeks I've finaly read, in Walter Hamilton's vivid translation. Plato's Symposium - on the Greek course at university, we only covered Phaedrus and selected books of The Republic - and Auden's The Age of Anxiety, reassured by John Fuller's Auden Companion that parts of it are as difficult as Finnegans Wake when my attention seemed fitful.
Loose inspiration from the former yielded one of Bernstein's perfect masterpieces, the Serenade for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion - Baiba Skride's performance in Dublin last year made me wonder why I hadn't heard it for so long - and from the latter the Second Symphony, first-rate in parts. In essence, the composer responds to the poetic general idea much as Strauss did with Nietzsche in Also sprach Zarathustra, but if that yields strong ideas, who's complaining. I've come close to the symphony, at least as far as the opening loneliness for two clarinets and the first set of variations are concerned. Everyone loves the not-so-desultory party music, and that works well with the preceding dirge, but the end I don't buy. Krystian Zimerman is outstanding in this film with Bernstein conducting the LSO (I was there)
while Janine Jansen stole all hearts in the Serenade when I played the final Socrates-Alcibiades sequence in this performance with Pappano (we also heard Gluzman, Midori and Kremer).
I wasn't sure that ten two-hour sessions on Bernstein would hold, at least from the compositional point of view. But so far, they absolutely have. There's been an alternation between serious and relatively light - not that LB ever made the distinction - and some real corkers, such as the second class focusing on Fancy Free and On the Town, from a very special annus mirabilis. Why have we never, in my experience at any rate, experienced Jerome Robbins' vivacious choreography for the half-hour ballet live in the UK? This is Stéphane Bullion of the Paris Opera Ballet in the cheeky third variation, proving that the wiggles in Maestro are vintage Robbins
Fancy Free, like Serenade, is a totally perfect score. So is Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, so rudely ignored by Woody Herman who commissioned it but never acknowledged receipt of the score or paid for it. Much as I find Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto for Herman and Co piquant, this sequence is of a different order. I like the idea with the two in each half of a concert followed by Apollo and Fancy Free. YouTube is a surprising place - I was reconciled to using sound recordings when I discovered the whole thing in a 1955 Bernstein jazz programme (I have a CD with just the talk), introduced and conducted by the composer; it's much the best.
The symphonic suites/dances from On the Waterfront and West Side Story are flawless, too; but it's hardly surprising if the latter as a whole has its weaknesses (the soppier side of the generic young lovers - Tony's 'Something's Coming' was one of the last numbers to be composed, and at least gives him grit). Candide remains, in any version, what Sondheim calls 'a first-class mess', but oh, what numbers. And of course one of the greatest operetta overtures ever, very much in a tradition. Once again I discovered Bernstein's TV performance of it - in one of his Children's Concerts - absolutely the best.
To think that this course would never have come about if it hadn't been for widespread interest in Maestro, a film I love and respect (so tired of those reviews and articles which criticise it for what it doesn't do rather than what it chooses to select). Catching up with Oppenheimer more recently, a fine film in so many ways, I'd say that the real comparison is not between that and Barbie (which I haven't seen and probably won't), but with Bradley Cooper's masterful movie.
While Oppenheimer sprawls and tries to cram in everything, Maestro holds focus. Performances in both are fine, but only Emily Blunt's Katherine Oppenheimer eventually becomes a rounded female character. The brilliant Florence Pugh is wasted, and has to participate in one of the worst Bad Sex Scenes in movies, getting up mid-bonk to survey the bookshelves. Above all I hate the non-stop musical soundrack in Oppenheimer which often serves no point (though it's superb in the nuclear test sequence). Indifferent to the Oscars, I still won't mind at all if Cillian Murphy wins best actor award. But I really hope Carey Mulligan takes a statue too.