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Brandeis Alumni College Discussion

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

After taking a break from writing for the Musical Notes blog during August and September to focus on leading High Holiday services at Joliet Jewish Congregation, I’m back in blogging business.

Before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) took place in September, Alumni Weekend at my alma mater, Brandeis University, occurred from June 8-10 and included a roundtable on, who else? Leonard Bernstein.

It covered one of the musicals he wrote, West Side Story, and opened with a beautiful live performance of the song, “Somewhere,” by Theater Arts colleagues Adjunct Associate Professor Nancy Armstrong on vocals and accompanist Todd Theriault on piano. This was followed by a panel discussion among Neal Hampton, Associate Professor of Music and Director of the Brandeis University Orchestra; Carina Ray, Interim Chair and Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies; Robert Walsh, Associate Professor of Theater Arts; and moderated by Ingrid Schorr, Director of the Office of the Arts at Brandeis University.

Hampton raved about West Side Story, and provided a detailed description of its music. Walsh commented largely on the choreography in the musical. Ray’s analysis of the musical was a good balance to the positive reaction to West Side Story by the other two panelists, as she commented on interracial relationships in a colonial context, and how the musical included a story of immigration, the unequal relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S., a turf war, women as property (how Maria “belongs” to Bernardo), and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein’s small amount of actual research into Puerto Rican music (besides going to a gym where a social organization was trying to bring two opposing gangs together).

Ray commented that depictions of Puerto Rico and its citizens in West Side Story have been a cultural touchstone for those in the United States, regarding how they have come to think of Puerto Rico and its citizens during the 60 years that the musical has been in existence. Discussing the disastrous Hurricane Maria that hit the island of Puerto Rico in 2017, killing 3,057 people, Ray noted that the minimal reaction to the hurricane by the U.S., the nation it belongs to, can partly be attributed to images of Puerto Rico as “backwards” in works such as West Side Story. “They can ‘literally’ be matters of life and death,” she said. She then quoted Oscar Wilde, who once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”

If you’re interested in viewing the roundtable online, click here.


Young People’s Concerts

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

Music names our deep feelings, even when we can’t find the words to label them, Leonard Bernstein said in his first Young People’s Concert, originally televised by CBS on Jan. 18, 1958, in partnership with the New York Philharmonic. “The meaning of music is in the music, the rhythms, the notes, the way the notes move. You’ll find out the meanings themselves just by listening to it.”

Bernstein’s explanation of the meaning of music to young people implied that, even if a story line was supposed to offer a narrative for a piece, the basic understanding of that piece was in the notes themselves.

“Music is never about anything. It just is. Music is beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get pleasure out of listening to them,” he said.

The two-year worldwide celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday continues until Aug. 25, 2019.


Bernstein on TV

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

Leonard Bernstein’s book, The Joy of Music, contained not only imaginary conversations, but also television transcripts from the show Omnibus. They covered “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” “The World of Jazz,” “The Art of Conducting,” “American Musical Comedy,” “Introduction to Modern Music,” “The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach,” and “What Makes Opera Grand?”.

One concept Bernstein returned to throughout these shows is the idea of the “inevitability” of the next musical note and phrase. Beethoven wrote and re-wrote the musical themes for his symphonies (89-91); he had to figure out what would arrive next. This makes it seem, ironically, as if what he composed was not inevitable. After all, he had many choices for each note and rhythm. So, what makes the final phrases appear as if they were the only possible musical conclusions?

As Bernstein depicts Beethoven’s drafts in The Joy of Music, he shows us notes with multiple cross-outs and re-writes. We realize that it’s only due to Beethoven’s extensive work composing that the final products seem inevitable. If Beethoven had stopped anywhere along the line, then the end products might not have sounded inevitable to listeners at all.

Bernstein contrasts Beethoven’s work with an image from an Igor Stravinsky score, which the author notes, “looks almost as beautiful as it sounds” (92). “But Beethoven’s manuscript looks like a bloody record of a tremendous inner battle” (93). Bernstein called him “a builder,” someone “always probing and rejecting in his dedication to perfection, to the principle of inevitability” (105).

Bernstein also described this quality as “rightness- that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant” (29). So, the idea that Beethoven scribbled, wrote, re-wrote his symphonies until they were “right,” makes much more sense.

Perhaps the path to “rightness” is a different one for different composers, or maybe only certain composers achieve this quality. Bernstein goes so far as to compare Beethoven almost to G-d. Although I wouldn’t go that far, I’d certainly recommend this book as a good read for anyone interested in honoring Bernstein during the current, two-year, worldwide celebration. For more information, check-out the “Leonard Bernstein at 100” web site: The festival commemorates the composer, music educator and humanitarian with more than 2,500 events worldwide. G-d speed, Bernstein.

Tune in here next time for reviews of the cultural icon’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.



“The Joy of Music”: Gershwin & Bernstein

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

In Leonard Bernstein’s The Joy of Music, the author’s wide-ranging roles, including those of composer, inform his opinions. One of the topics he writes about is George Gershwin, even having one of his characters, the Professional Manager (P.M.) ask lightly, “What other George is there?” (55). Bernstein and the P.M. compare and contrast Bernstein’s and Gershwin’s works. “After all, George was just like you,” the P.M. says, “highbrow, one foot in Carnegie Hall and the other in Tin Pan Alley. He wrote concert music, too, and was all wound up in fancy harmony and counterpoint and orchestration” (56). Bernstein replied that Gershwin’s progression as a composer was a more natural progression than his own, “starting with small forms and blossoming out from there. My way is more confused: I wrote a symphony before I ever wrote a popular song” (57). The comparison between the two men continues, with Bernstein largely lauding Gershwin, calling him a “great, great theater composer,” even to Gershwin’s detriment: “Perhaps that’s what was wrong with his concert music: it was really theater music thrust into a concert hall” (62).

Bernstein wrote that he thought that each of Gershwin’s works was better than the previous one. Although Bernstein greatly admired the melodies of Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which United Airlines has determinedly made famous through their advertising, he wrote that the later musical An American in Paris (1951) is also a study in tunes, but an improvement upon Gershwin’s earlier works. “[Gershwin] had by that time discovered certain tricks of composition, ways of linking themes up, of combining and developing motives, of making an orchestral fabric” (59). However, it’s the opera Porgy and Bess (1935), famous for melodies including  “Summertime,” that has caused Bernstein to ask, “Doesn’t it point the way to a kind of Gershwin music that would have reached its own perfection eventually?” (61). This huge compliment leads to Bernstein lamenting Gershwin’s death. “What he would have done in the theater in another ten or twenty years!” (62) “Will America ever realize what a loss it was?”

The imaginary conversation comes back to Bernstein’s own composing. Despite knowing the general formula for a hit musical, the Professional Manager wraps up with one of his original thoughts about one of Bernstein’s shows: “Very strange. It’s a big success, the public enjoys it, it’s been running for five months, and there’s not a hit in it. How do you explain it?” he asks (53, 62).

Why is a piece of music successful? Although there may be a formula for much of it, we may never fully know.

Tune in next time for a further exploration of Bernstein’s The Joy of Music.


Leonard Bernstein’s “The Joy of Music”

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

“Leonard Bernstein at 100” is a two-year worldwide celebration of the life and career of the composer, with more than 2,500 events on six continents. There are many possible descriptors for Bernstein, including musician, educator, author, cultural ambassador, conductor and humanitarian. In Bernstein’s wide-ranging career, he found time not only to educate the public through television broadcasts of the programs “Omnibus” and the “Young People’s Concerts,” but also through books, such as The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Findings and The Unanswered Question.

As part of this major celebration, it seems pertinent to revisit some of Bernstein’s works, beginning with The Joy of Music (Amadeus Press, 2004). The first half of the book includes a series of imaginary conversations among characters including Younger Brother, Lyric Poet, Bernstein himself, Broadway Producer and Professional Manager, addressing topics of “Why Beethoven?”, “What Do You Mean, Meaning?”, “Whatever Happened to that Great American Symphony?”, and “Why don’t You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?”.

Bernstein’s many different roles in life led him to come to a wide variety of revelations about music. His background as a music educator informed his thoughts about music history. These include the ideas that, “All music must begin in the theater, historically speaking. … Music first arises attached to words and ideas. There is no folk music, to my knowledge, that is abstract. It is music for working to, or for dancing to, or for singing words to. It is always about something” (44). Music originated as folk music for various functions in people’s lives, including praying, life cycle events including weddings, other celebratory events, for healing, and for working.

The development of music included operas growing from small to large, and church motets becoming cantatas and large requiems. “Now musical idioms have become familiar; and the procedures of Western music are enough alike so that the music can be separated from the words or the ideas or the concepts – that is, from the theater- and can exist for the audience in its own right” (45). Now, we have different forms of music: not only operas by Mozart, but also symphonies, and not only Passions by Bach, but also his preludes and fugues. Certain types of music developed into others. Bernstein called the church, “the greatest theater of them all” (44), concluding that, “in short, the audience had grown up with the music in the theater, and had reached the point where they could relate to the music without the theater” (45). In other words, the churchgoing audience itself developed from a group that expected music to include lyrics, to one that also became interested in and receptive to instrumental music outside of houses of worship.

This brief overview of folk and church music is only a taste of the topics Bernstein included in The Joy of Music, some of which are discussed here. 

Tune in next time for a comparison of the music of George Gershwin and Bernstein.


Music’s Healing Power

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

Violinist for the L.A. Philharmonic, Vijay Gupta, spoke about “The Power of Music to Heal” at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville, Ill., on Feb. 27. The free, sold-out talk was sponsored by ARTSpeaks, a grassroots group focused on arts advocacy in Naperville. It began with Bach solo music, unaccompanied, and Gupta joked with the audience that, that was what they had signed up for.

Gupta made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic as a child, appeared on Oprah’s talk show when he was 8 years old, and toured as a soloist internationally, including in Israel and Germany.

He took the SATs when he was 12, and began college when he was only 13 years old. He graduated from Marist College, “fell in love with cell biology,” and working in a lab at Harvard, studying Alzheimer’s, discovered his fellow researchers “were bigger music nuts than I was.”

However much science appealed to him on a certain level, and how little he wanted to disappoint his family members, Gupta heeded the advice from a colleague that, “You need to do what makes you leap out of bed in the morning.”

He earned a violin performance Master’s degree from Yale, and in 2007 at 19 years old, auditioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The conductor at the time, Esa-Pekka Salonen, awarded Gupta a position with the internationally-renowned orchestra. Gupta’s father moved to L.A. with him, as the condition upon which the gifted musician could accept his job offer.

Gupta eventually became the violin teacher of Nathaniel Ayers, a former Juilliard student with a severe mental illness who ended up homeless in Los Angeles. Gupta visited Skid Row, an area of downtown Los Angeles with one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the United States, of between 5,000 and 8,000 individuals. This visit led him to wonder, “How many more Nathaniels were out there? It was in meeting Nathaniel that I began to understand that it was about more than playing live music for audiences in a concert hall.”

Gupta started the program, “Street Symphony,” as a 2011 TED Senior Fellow. Street Symphony is a non-profit group that “places social justice at the heart of music-making. Our community creates opportunities for musical engagement and dialogue between world-class musicians and people disenfranchised by homelessness, incarceration, and poverty in Los Angeles County,” states the Street Symphony web site,

Next during his talk in Naperville, Gupta played a video about the orchestra. The video included an interview with Reena Esmail, a composer-in-residence with the Street Symphony, who said, “Music isn’t just a form of entertainment, it’s a lifeline.”

Gupta then played a violin version live of the piece that Esmail composed for Street Symphony, “Take What You Need,” which was originally written for choir and audience in a call-and-response format. “We need to embrace art as a public health tool now,” Gupta said. “In a world where we are human doings, not human beings, the arts give us a place to be.”

The organization has played more than 350 concerts for the Skid Row community, with an average of 125 attendees each.

“How do we show up for this community without our instruments? That’s the challenge,” Gupta said.