Take Care of This House

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published November 4, 2017

Today is an auspicious double anniversary: the New York Festival of Song is thirty years old, and NYFOS’s Founding Advisor Leonard Bernstein is…well, nearly one hundred. He’ll officially round off his century mark on August 25, 2018. But centennial festivities are planned over the span of two full concert seasons, and NYFOS wanted to get in at the very beginning. It seemed appropriate to kick off our Pearl Anniversary by honoring one of our most important mentors. And his rousing bicentennial cantata Songfest is the perfect vehicle—not just to ring in our three-decade mark, but also to celebrate America’s cultural diversity at a critical moment in our history.

For me, Songfest is Bernstein’s greatest vocal work. Compositionally it is a virtuoso turn: every movement is in a different style, a dazzling tribute to the enormous musical vocabulary at Bernstein’s command. It ranges from cool jazz, including a louche, swinging twelve-tone row (“The Pennycandy Store Beyond the El”), to Poulenc in his gamelan-pastiche mode (“Storyette H.M.”), to the smoldering expressionism Bernstein used to bare his soul (“What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”). While there is no narrative through-line, Songfest is a tribute to American creativity, a portrait of the country seen through the eyes of artists, kids, couples, ex-patriates, and outsiders of all stamps. “I, too, am America,” proclaims Langston Hughes. It is a sentiment echoed in Songfest by a gay man, a Latina woman, an urban poet, a pubescent boy, a Muslim, and all the other characters who get to speak their truth over the course of the work’s dozen movements.

Songfest had a successful premiere in 1977 at the Kennedy Center. The first half of the concert featured a collaboration between Bernstein and Mtsislav Rostropovich, who was about to become the music director of the National Symphony.  (They were known as the two most uninhibited kissers in the music business. It was a moist evening.) Each of them conducted a Bernstein work, and Rostropovich was also featured as cello soloist in Bernstein’s Three Meditations from Mass. Songfest, under the composer’s baton, filled the second half. A recording soon ensued, followed by further performances around the world. But the work emerged during a dark era in the composer’s life. The troubles began in 1970 when Bernstein and his wife Felicia were skewered in the press after hosting a fundraiser for the Black Panthers Legal Defense Fund in their apartment. Tom Wolfe’s famous, sardonic write-up of the event made hay of what the journalist called “Radical Chic.” Wolfe’s scathing misinterpretation provided the fledgling writer with a nice career boost, but it proved damaging for the Bernsteins. Their home was picketed, the hate mail flew in, and J. Edgar Hoover may well have danced a jig of glee as both the Black Liberation movement and left-wing Jewish liberals received a public shaming. Felicia Bernstein’s good intentions were to be permanently misunderstood, as was the purpose of the fundraiser. The Black Panthers were stranded in jail because of unjustly inflated bail. They were in desperate need of legal help, and their families also required support. (A post-script: when the Panthers’ case did come to trial it was thrown out of court. The judge found the charges utterly unsubstantiated.)

A year later Bernstein’s Mass opened the Kennedy Center to a mixed response. There are wonderful sections in the work, but the Maestro’s tendency to indulge himself leads to a certain sweaty earnestness, and Mass could certainly have benefitted from some editing. Bernstein’s drive to serve as teacher and moral arbiter for a troubled world, which weighed heavily on Mass, was even more fatal to his next big theatrical project, the Broadway musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He and his lyricist Alan Jay Lerner bit off more than they—or anyone else—could possibly chew: they attempted to tell the story of the first hundred years of the White House, with a focus on race relations. 1600’s score is filled with glories, but the presidential pageant never found its way dramatically. The show floundered during a series of hasty rewrites in its Philadelphia tryouts, and flopped after just seven performances on the Great White Way. This was a devastating end to a Broadway career that had included On the Town and West Side Story. Bernstein was so bitter that he refused to give permission for an original cast recording. Fortunately, a few people made some bootlegs of the Broadway performance, which just might be clickable on YouTube. Even more fortunately, the score has been resurrected as a viable concert work, A White House Cantata. We’ll share a few of those numbers tonight.

There was a third upheaval in Bernstein’s life. Though he had had many gay liaisons over the course of his life, his marriage to Felicia had managed to survive his almost compulsive infidelities. But when he met a young man named Tom Cothran in 1973, he fell harder than usual. He determined to leave his marriage, and he even came out publicly—albeit in slightly veiled terms. Two things then transpired: he ultimately found he could not live in harmony with Cothran, and his wife’s cancer recurred. Bernstein had returned to her after the affair with Cothran wound down, but it became clear she would not survive this latest bout. She died in 1978, leaving Bernstein bereft, depressed, and guilt-ridden. Three years later Cothran died too—of AIDS.

Cothran was a voracious reader of poetry, and he collaborated with Bernstein on choosing the poems for Songfest. I wager those evenings were among their happiest and most compatible encounters.

Songfest was originally a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra, intended to cap America’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976. With all the turmoil in his personal and professional life, Bernstein was not able to honor the commission in time for its deadline. But he clearly remained committed to the new song cycle and previewed four of the songs with the New York Philharmonic in November of 1976. When it was completed, he struggled to name the piece, and his list of possible titles gives us a sense of how he envisioned it: Six Characters in Search of an OperaNotes Toward an American OperaThe Glorious Fourth, Mortal MelodiesA Secular Service, and Ballet for Voices. He ultimately opted for the simplest name and avoided freighting the work with pomposity or intellectual fanfare.

Songfest demonstrates Bernstein’s genius for putting poetry to music. Blessed with this rare gift, in tandem with his onstage song-collaborations with partners like Jennie Tourel, Christa Ludwig, and Dietrich-Fischer Dieskau, you would imagine he would have been inspired to write an abundance of art songs. But his interest in piano-and-voice works seems to have died out fairly early in his career. A couple of Rilke settings, the charming La Bonne Cuisine, and the kids’ cycle I Hate Music were all written in the 40s, and that was the extent of his published art songs until his very last work, Arias and Barcarolles.

A’s and B’s, as it has come to be known, proved to be hugely important to the early success of New York Festival of Song. Our connection to the legendary maestro started with Michael Barrett, who studied under Bernstein before becoming his assistant conductor.  Through their close friendship we got wind of an interesting possibility: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had commissioned a piece from Bernstein in the late 1980s—Arias and Barcarolles, it was called—but after receiving it they dragged their heels about putting it in their season. After a while it became clear that CMSLC was jettisoning the work altogether, and Arias and Barcarolles was looking for a home. Michael already knew the piece–he’d played early drafts of it with Bernstein. We inquired if we could give the American premiere (it had received a preview performance in Tel Aviv). We received permission, and it opened our second season on a double bill with Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes.

I admit that I was initially puzzled by A’s and B’s. For one thing, it was written in so many different styles, from Broadway bounce to 12-tone anomie. Like Songfest, it seemed like a compendium of almost every genre Bernstein had tackled in his 40-plus years as a composer. But the texts, mostly by Bernstein himself, were intensely autobiographical and self-referential. Working on A’s and B’s was like entering a maze, and I was frequently lost. Eventually we began to see our way through its many enigmas, and we came to treasure every note, every riddle.

Our premiere was a howling success, the music press turned out in droves to write about it, and NYFOS was suddenly in the spotlight. Our subsequent recording of the work won us a Grammy Award for Best Recording of a New Work. Tonight we offer two of its key moments: the prelude, an enigmatic declaration of love sung emotionlessly over a turbulent, slashing accompaniment; and “Love Song,” in which a feuding couple sing obliquely about their troubled marriage using the metaphor of a song. Breezily hinting at marital infidelities, skirting the issue of love, and making the litany of their problems into a singsong blues, the husband and wife consider what it would feel like to separate from one another. It is one of Bernstein’s most revealing and most mysterious songs.

Most American music-lovers know Bernstein’s legacy so well that it is easy to forget how unusual his achievements were. Besides spearheading the Mahler revival, collaborating with Maria Callas and Luchino Visconti on a landmark production of La sonnambula at La Scala, and composing a majestic oeuvre of orchestral and choral works, he created something no other superstar conductor had done before (or since): a canon of Broadway shows that have achieved the status of classics.

His first show was On the Town, loosely based on the scenario of his ballet piece Fancy Free. Working with the up-and-coming Jerome Robbins and Oliver Smith, the very experienced George Abbott, and then-debutants Betty Comden and Adolph Green, he was at the helm of a smash hit. He was 26 years old. Just months before, he had made a legendary debut with the New York Philharmonic on a few hours’ notice, substituting for Bruno Walter who had taken ill. That same season Bernstein’s first symphony, the Jeremiah, received a premiere in Pittsburgh, and Fancy Free opened just a few months after that. Bernstein was in a fever of creative energy.

His boldness was all the more remarkable because the boundaries between classical and popular music were far stricter at that time than they are now. Musicians who could conduct Schumann’s Overture to Manfred were not supposed to write musical comedies. One of Bernstein’s great artistic contributions was to break down the barrier between so-called “high” and “low” culture. He gave respect to the full range of America’s musical languages. Who can forget his fulsome enthusiasm on television for Janis Ian, the teenaged composer of “Society’s Child”? He gave her hit song the same reverence he would have accorded to Berg’s Wozzeck. I saw that TV show in 1966. And 22 years later, NYFOS was born. The two facts are not unrelated.

Bernstein followed his success on Broadway with more shows in the 1950s:  Peter Pan, Wonderful Town, Candide, and West Side Story. Even his 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti—a portrait of a failing marriage—began its life on the Great White Way, and proved to be a solid and enduring success. Later on it was folded into its late-period sequel, A Quiet Place (1983), where its musical accessibility alleviated some of the gnarly new opera’s gloom.

But after offering the public the very high-class candy of On the Town and Wonderful Town, Bernstein began to reach just past the Broadway audience’s comfort level—the original production of Candide was not a success and even West Side Story was considered dangerously dark for its time. After that, he began to overestimate even his own creative limits with a series of musicals he was unable to complete. They often foundered on his attempts to combine entertainment with Big Ideas, the nadir of which was the debacle of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is easy to see in retrospect why many of his later theater works had rough births and needed to be reworked later on by intrepid producers before they could enter the mainstream. They were ahead of their time, and they also needed some editing.

Bernstein’s theatrical instincts were not as sure, perhaps, as his musical ones. He was at his best when guided by the strong hand of George Abbott or the iron fist of Jerome Robbins. But we are now at a point where we can revel in the best of Bernstein: the audacity of his artistic vision, his jagged rhythms, his uninhibited emotional force, and his eternal Talmudic questioning of the world around him. Lenny is hot because he is unafraid. And Lenny is cool for the very same reason.

Arias and Barcarolles was Bernstein’s last contribution to the repertoire of vocal music, and it changed my life—and Michael Barrett’s life—forever. But Lenny had been a primary force in our lives since our childhoods, starting with his indispensable Young People’s Concerts, which I saw both on television and live at what was then known as Philharmonic Hall. Bernstein’s shower of gifts continued with the impressive array of his original cast albums—I was practically weaned on Wonderful Town—and LPs of him conducting everything from the overture to Zampa, to Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn, to Verdi’s Falstaff, to the sexiest, slyest Rhapsody in Blue I’ve ever heard. I admit that I was always a bit threatened by Lenny’s gyrations on the podium—should anyone be doing those things in public?—but I secretly aspired to his total lack of inhibition. He embodied the highest potential of human life force, and did so with a kind of flamboyance and extravagance that took our breath away. Whatever the flaws of this extraordinary man, Bernstein was a beacon for all American musicians—indeed, for all Americans, period.


We’re presenting Songfest in an arrangement by John Musto, scored for two pianos and two percussion players. Musto whipped this version up for a performance at a summer art song program in Los Angeles, coincidentally also named Songfest. Without question, Bernstein’s original orchestration is a thing of beauty. But it can swamp the lyrics, and the composer was aware of this issue. At one performance he prefaced each song with a reading of the poem (done by two of his three kids) so that the audience could absorb the texts before hearing the music. With the leaner texture of two pianos, Songfest’s extraordinary “libretto” can finally find equal footing with the musical score.

Each movement of this work is a world unto itself, beginning with his grand, declamatory setting of Frank O’Hara’s “To the Poem.” Its broad melody and bursts of percussion are a grand fanfare for the many great and small, unruly, irreplaceable acts of creativity that make up the tapestry of American culture. “The Pennycandy Store Beyond the El” takes us down a totally different path—furtive, confused, abruptly orgasmic. Bernstein’s setting of Ferlinghetti’s 1919 poem merges the cool jazz of Miles Davis with strict twelve-tone compositional techniques. Bernstein was always looking for ways to bring warmth and expression to dodecaphonic music. No wonder Alban Berg’s wife considered engaging him to finish the incomplete third act of her late husband’s opera Lulu. (Legend has it that she needed to consult her Ouija board before making a final offer, as she did before any big decision. She came back to Bernstein the next day with the result: “Alban sagt nein.” By all reports Bernstein was relieved.)

Like Gershwin, Bernstein had an affinity for Latin rhythms. The passionate feminism of Julia de Burgos’ manifesto, “A Julia de Burgos,” gets a bravura setting: constantly shifting, driving rhythms, perhaps more redolent of Spain than the poet’s native Puerto Rico. Bernstein’s forceful music sounds like the West Side Story dances on meth.

Bernstein had rarely written about his sexuality. But in Songfest he wrote his first gay manifesto, “To What You Said.” After his public disclosure during the affair with Tom Cothran, it seemed that Bernstein was finally ready to come out of his none-too-well guarded closet through his music. He came across an obscure Walt Whitman text, a piece of prose found among the poet’s papers after his death. The idea of embracing gay pride, especially in a work as official and high-profile as this, was a big step in 1977. Recycling a gorgeous tune from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bernstein created a noble hymn to gay people—fierce, uncompromising, loving—and broadcast it to the nation.

“I, Too, Sing America/Okay Negroes” turns up the temperature as Bernstein contrasts two classic African-American activists from two different eras: the sincere, valiant Langston Hughes in 1926, and the scathing, militant June Jordan in 1974. Langston Hughes sings in the measured voice of oratorio, while June Jordan cuts in with the slashing accents of be-bop, ultimately silencing Hughes’ more temperate voice. The interleaving of these two poems is a masterstroke on Bernstein’s part, evoking the history of black activism more succinctly than any textbook.

Bernstein dials back the energy with “To My Dear and Loving Husband.” The poem is by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). the first American woman to achieve recognition as a poet. Setting her canonic hymn to marriage as a trio for three female voices, he evokes the quartet that ends Act II, scene i of Britten’s Peter Grimes—a work he’d conducted at Tanglewood in 1946. Bernstein puts his singers’ breath control and intonation to the test as he closely intertwines the three voices against a spare orchestration. He then turns the tables with Gertrude Stein’s “Storyette H.M.” Stein’s prose-poem-àclef was about the philandering Henri Matisse and his wife. But it also captures Bernstein’s own marriage—“One was married to some one. That one was going away to have a good time. The one that was married to that one did not like it very well that the one to whom that one was married then was going off alone to have a good time.” Turning Stein’s run-on prose into a duet, Bernstein paints the self-satisfied husband and the fuming wife with amazing deftness. The uneven, ever-changing rhythms are the musical equivalent of their roller-coaster marriage, clothed in a Poulenc-tinged pentatonic scale spiced with the occasional Gershwin blues note.

Bernstein brings the entire ensemble together again with an e. e. cummings setting, “if you can’t eat you got to.” Emulating the suavity of The Mills Brothers, the cool-jazz vocal sextet alternates a gentle samba beat with sections of pure American blues. Bernstein clears the musical space when he comes to the heart of the poem, and indeed of the whole cycle: “if you can’t sing you’ve got to die.”

Bernstein follows this breezy, comforting ensemble with a mezzo-soprano solo of more emotional weight, “Music I Heard With You.” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s elegiac poem receives an unusual setting, juxtaposing conventional harmony with brief 12-tone sections, giving the speaker’s grief odd moments of disassociation, the edge of madness.  A scherzo movement follows: “Zizi’s Lament,” which clothes Gregory Corso’s ironic poem of sexual longing with faux-Arab tropes like an exotic dance. Every man in the narrator’s family seems to have access to “the laughing sickness”—erotic fulfillment?—but it eludes the singer, driving him mad with longing. It is the companion piece to “The Pennycandy Store Beyond the El”: in the first, the pubescent boy is at the moment when he realizes he might possibly like girls more than he likes candy, but in “Zizi” he’s a teenager in the grips of full hormonal torment.

“What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” is the darkest song in the cycle, and it was also Bernstein’s favorite movement. Set to the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, it finds the composer in full Mahler/Berg mode, weighty and attenuated, bleak with regret. Bernstein drew on the classic A-A-B-A form of a popular song, but you’d scarcely realize this without analyzing the score. The jagged themes, slow tempo, and crushing emotional depth completely obscure the old-fashioned, traditional skeleton of the composition. Significantly, he uses a musical motif he went on to develop in “The Love of My Life,” As and Bs’ fourth song. The two pieces are also on a similar subject: aching memories of past loves. But the As and Bs song, written on the composer’s own text, is filled with manic energy, a desperate, semi-comic attempt to avoid facing the truth. Here, he confronts his demons and his doubts face-on. I cannot in good faith claim that “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” was intended to be autobiographical. But I do know that it was written around the time of Bernstein’s most serious gay affair after a life of promiscuity, and that it coincided with Felicia’s second bout of cancer. In this song I hear him wrestling with his very soul.

The joyous anthem “Israfel” closes the cycle. Israfel is one of the four Islamic archangels. Like Uriel in the Christian tradition, Israfel is poised to blow the trumpet in Jerusalem to herald the Day of Resurrection. He is a master of music, singing praise to God in a thousand languages. What better way to end this cycle—and our opening night—than this exuberant, complex hymn? Like Israfel—like Bernstein—NYFOS “despises an unimpassioned song.” As we belt out the last high C of the evening, we trumpet the power of song, the energy of live music, the community of artists and audiences we have built in our first thirty years—and look forward to the next.

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.


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