Bernstein: ‘Slava! A Political Overture’ (1977)

Another Bernstein rarity, this one written for the inaugural season of Mstislav Rostropovich (Slava) as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. There’s a nifty part for electric guitar partway through, and a taped sequence of political speeches (sometimes cut, though not here).

Rostropovich was of course a political figure, dubbed a dissident by the Soviets after he came to the United States. His appointment as music director of our national orchestra was a nice thumb on the nose gesture by us. Bernstein had been instrumental in getting Slava and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, out of the Soviet Union.

It’s a wonderfully whacky piece that seems to capture some of the atmosphere of political Washington, even to this day. In its way, this overture is kind of a musical equivalent of a satirical essay by H.L. Mencken.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the Israel Philharmonic. –TM

Bernstein: ‘Elegy for Mippy II’

As we approach Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday on August 25, I’ve been featuring a number of his lesser-known pieces in this space. Here’s another: The “Elegy for Mippy II” for solo trombone, composed in the late 1940s. Mippy was the name of Bernstein’s brother’s dog. The score instructs the player to provide a foot-tapping accompaniment. Ximo Vicedo is the trombonist in the video.

Bernstein: ‘Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs’

In the run-up to Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, I’ve been highlighting some of his lesser known music. Here’s his jazz/classical fusion piece “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,” originally written, like Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto,” which it resembles, for Woody Herman’s big band. Bernstein conducts this performance for the TV show “Omnibus” in 1955.

Pacific Symphony will perform this piece as part of its Bernstein tribute.

Bernstein’s ‘Wonderful Town’: ‘Ohio’

Here’s some more little-known Bernstein. His 1953 musical “Wonderful Town,” with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, was based on the popular play called “My Sister Eileen,” which tells the story of two sisters from Ohio who come to New York to pursue careers as a writer and an actress. They move into a dumpy Greenwich Village basement and shortly after arriving there sing this song, longing for home.

Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, with singers Kim Criswell and Audra McDonald. –TM

Book review: ‘Famous Father Girl’ by Jamie Bernstein

Being the child of Leonard Bernstein was like having a nuclear blast for a dad. You practically had to stand back and wear protective goggles when he came into a room, and even then the gale wind and blinding light were hard to withstand. The aftereffects of Lenny radiation included a sense of worthlessness (or at least that one had little talent), sexual confusion and a certain rudderless direction in life. Still, all three of his children apparently adored him, and he adored them back, sometimes to excess. It wasn’t the worst childhood if you were Leonard Bernstein’s kid, but it certainly could be odd and overwhelming.

Just in time for the centenary comes “Famous Father Girl” by Jamie Bernstein, the oldest of the Bernstein children. It’s a “Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” and well done too. There’s a certain built-in page-turning quality to the story if you know anything about Leonard Bernstein at all. You know that, as you read, you’re moving ever closer to the lurid and tragic last decade of his life. Jamie Bernstein heightens that feeling by telling her story chronologically and revealing details about her father, and mother (the actress Felicia Montealegre), as they became known to her. So the early chapters of “Famous Father Girl” are fairly idyllic, told from the standpoint of a young girl basking in the glow of her parents’ love and success and fame.

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Bernstein’s ‘On the Town’: ‘Ya Got Me’

If your only knowledge of Leonard Bernstein’s musical “On the Town” is the famous movie, then you don’t know it. The film cut most of Bernstein’s music and the composer ended up boycotting it.

Here’s a great bit from the studio cast recording made in 1960 under Bernstein’s direction, and not in the movie. There are two quick comedic preludes and then the wonderful song “Ya Got Me.” The characters are attempting to cheer up their friend, Gabey.

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.