Bernstein at the Skirball

I went to the “Leonard Bernstein at 100” exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon, an entertaining way to beat the excessive heat. The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2, is organized by the GRAMMY Museum and curated by its founding executive director Robert Santelli, a music historian. I doubt that any exhibit could capture the plentitude and variety of Bernstein’s life, but this one — with genuine artifacts, as well as replicas and facsimiles — does a good job at showing just how central Bernstein once was in American life. Here are a few of the items that were on display. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Entrance to the exhibit.

A photo of a young Bernstein with conductor Serge Koussevitzky, 1940s.

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Anne Akiko Meyers brings old (expensive) violin and modern attitude to Pacific Symphony

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Anne Akiko Meyers is bringing the world’s most expensive violin to town to play with Pacific Symphony this week. It has been loaned to her for life by the owner, who bought it in late 2012 for more than $16 million, still the highest price ever paid for a violin. The instrument, made in 1741, is known as the “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri “del Gesù,” named for one of its former owners, the Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). He loved the instrument so much that he wanted to be buried with it.

“Its health and security are always the utmost important factors when traveling,” Meyers said of the instrument recently in a phone interview. Nevertheless, she doesn’t seem particularly intimidated by the prospect. She’s had to care for expensive violins, on loan, for most of her career.

“Well, I’ve been really fortunate my whole life,” she said. “I’ve had to rely on the generosity of donors, patrons, foundations and have played on a number of Guarneri “del Jesu”’s and Stradivari violins my entire life. It is totally like you’re walking around with a Matisse or a Picasso or a Monet on your back. It’s our equipment but yet it’s an antique piece of history that can never be repeated again.”

She wants to pass it on to the next player in the same condition is it now, which she characterizes as near perfect, clean and crack-free and without so much as a sound post patch (common in most violins).

She describes its tone quality this way: “It’s like it has dark and milk chocolate and white chocolate all wrapped into one, and it has super deep resonance on the G string — it sounds like a cello — but yet it just has a brilliant E string and it projects like none other because it’s so healthy.”

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André Watts, 16, debuts with New York Philharmonic

The 16-year-old André Watts debuts with the New York Philharmonic in a Young People’s Concert, nationally broadcast in prime time on CBS, Jan. 15, 1963. Leonard Bernstein introduces him with distinct references to Watts’ race. (His parents were Hungarian and African-American.) This was the Civil Rights Era, after all.

“Look, he was a very smart man, he thought this through,” Watts, referring to Bernstein’s speech, told me in 2016. “I’m sure he discussed it, ‘Can I say this? Can I not say this? How far can I go?’”

With this same piece (Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1) a couple weeks later, Watts substituted for an ailing Glenn Gould on New York Philharmonic subscription concerts, Bernstein conducting. Watts had to ask his mother if it was OK first. A commercial recording on Columbia was also made at the time and is still in print.

Watts performs Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto tonight and tomorrow with Pacific Symphony.

Here are two interviews I did with Watts, nearly 26 years apart.

André Watts Sounds Off. Los Angeles Times, Nov. 30, 1990.

André Watts Looks Back on a Storied Career. Orange County Register, May 27, 2016.

New subscription series: ‘Symphonic Voices’

Pacific Symphony has launched a new subscription series focused on the human voice.

Puccini

Dubbed “Symphonic Voices,” the four-concert package is centered on the annual semi-staged production of an opera, which next season will be Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” (Feb. 21, 23, 26).

To this is added the other opera on the schedule, Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortilèges” (May 16-18, 2019); a semi-staged production of “My Fair Lady” on the Pops series, conducted by Richard Kaufman (May 31-June 1, 2019); and the season-ending performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand,” featuring the Pacific Chorale, the Southern California Children’s Chorus, and soloists to be announced (June 6-8, 2019).

Carl St.Clair conducts everything except “My Fair Lady.”

For those who sign up for the subscription in the near future, a fifth concert, “Bernstein @ 100,” celebrating the centennial of Leonard Bernstein (Oct.25-27, 2018), is added free.

Subscriptions to “Symphonic Voices” are available for $270. Call (714) 755-5799 for more information or to purchase. This offer is not available online.

Interview: Carl St.Clair remembers Leonard Bernstein (Part 2)

While Bernstein invariably called St.Clair “Cowboy,” St.Clair called Bernstein “Mr. B.” This was St.Clair’s own coinage (taken up by others) and a response to Bernstein’s mock protest one day, his hands around St.Clair’s neck and exclaiming, “Stop calling me Mr. Bernstein!” St.Clair explained to Bernstein that he needed someone in his life to call “Mister,” as a sign of respect, and “unfortunately or fortunately” for Bernstein, he happened to be the one. St.Clair was never going to call him Lenny. And so Mr. B was born.

Behind the scenes, Bernstein’s personality was sensitive, childlike and infectious, St.Clair says. There were many who felt protective of him, including St.Clair.

“I do know that every person in his life had a special relationship with him. He didn’t treat anybody in a general way. He looked in you and found what was special to you and that’s what he loved about you. The thing is that it didn’t matter what your walk of life was. If you were honest and that’s who you were and you were proud of it, he would love you. He found something.”

THE FINAL CONCERT

During our conversation, St.Clair’s thoughts kept drifting back to Bernstein’s last week at Tanglewood, in August, 1990.

St.Clair arrived a day after Bernstein that year and was immediately told that Bernstein was not well and didn’t want to see anyone, but wanted to see him. He was told to go to a rehearsal space where Bernstein was awaiting him.

“There was an old armchair, with a high back and big wide arms — they used it I’m sure in some opera production, some prop. He was sitting in there and he had some oxygen and a handheld kind of thing, something to help open his lungs up. He looked at me and he kind of perked up a little bit. …

“I remember sitting down on the arm of the chair and reaching around and kissing him on the forehead and I look, and then I did another closer look into his eyes. And he wagged his finger like that. He said to me something quite interesting, he said, ‘Don’t you tell anybody what you just saw.’ Because what I saw was that he wasn’t himself and he wasn’t really all there the way everyone was normally greeted with this flash of energy and spark and life and knowledge and understanding. Every time you looked into his eyes you were blinded.”

Later that week, Bernstein broke down during a rehearsal. He was preparing for what would turn out to be his last concert, rehearsing the Boston Symphony in Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. All went well. But when he started to rehearse his own work, “Arias and Barcarolles,” in a new version orchestrated by Bright Sheng, things started to go sour. The orchestra was reading, there were misprints, Bernstein didn’t like this and that.

“He gets a little fatigued, he can’t breathe, he can’t get air,” St.Clair recalls. “I was there, I kept my eye on him and I saw the frustration kind of mounting. It’s not an easy piece and it was new to everybody.” Finally, Bernstein had had enough.

“He just put the baton down and left the stage.” St.Clair and Bernstein’s entourage immediately jumped on stage and followed Bernstein to the green room, where he sat, exhausted, on a couch.

“I can’t even conduct my own (expletive) music,” St.Clair remembers him saying.  “He was really dejected.”

Looking for solutions, someone suggested that St.Clair could take over conducting “Arias and Barcarolles.” Together with intermission, that would give Bernstein almost an hour’s break during the concert between the Britten and the Beethoven.

“I’ll never forget,” St.Clair says, “he looked over at me, and even as sick as he was and as disappointed as he was, it just shows how quick he was — he looked over at me and in a mock Texas accent said, ‘Cowboy, you got it in ya? You got it in ya?” St.Clair did.

Bernstein didn’t quite give up on “Arias and Barcarolles” entirely, however. On the Friday afternoon before the Sunday concert, he got two pianists and a pair of singers together, with St.Clair conducting and went through the piece in detail. “For three hours, he was back in his element,” St.Clair says. “I mean the teacher we all knew him to be. It was a music lesson, it was a conducting lesson, it was a singing lesson, it was a master class, all rolled into one.”

The final concert, that Sunday, became a famous occasion, of course, witnesses describing a “gasping” Bernstein struggling to get through it. Deutsche Grammophon issued it as a recording  after Bernstein’s death, minus St.Clair’s contribution to the program. In its review of the concert, The New York Times mentioned the young conductor in passing. Just a few weeks later, on Oct. 1, 1990, St.Clair assumed the music directorship at Pacific Symphony.

FLOWERS FOR A LEGEND

One of St.Clair’s fondest memories of Bernstein is back in Vienna, at “The Quiet Place” rehearsals. This particular rehearsal was held upstairs at the Staatsoper, as a ballet company — St.Clair thinks it was the Bolshoi — gave a performance on the main stage. Late in the evening, after the rehearsal had ended, Bernstein, St.Clair and the entourage headed out the stage door, on the way to the Hotel Bristol for dinner with the master. As they emerged, they found a throng of people waiting with flowers. They were waiting for the ballerinas.

“It was a big crowd so we kind of gathered around him,” St.Clair says. “Somebody yelled out, ‘There’s Leonard Bernstein!’ And the whole place is looking around and they found him and we huddled around and it starts raining roses, all the flowers just started pouring over us and it’s literally raining roses.” St.Clair and the others quickly whisked Bernstein away.

“The poor ballerinas didn’t get their roses that night,” St.Clair says.

They were all for Mr. B.