Revisiting Leonard Bernstein’s last season, part two – Farewell to the New York Philharmonic I; Copland

Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Copland with the New York Philharmonic on 19 October 1989. © Michael E. Kluger, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Archives

Commemorating the 30th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s passing, Adventures in Music revisits the recorded legacy of Bernstein’s final season, 1989-1990, as preserved on audio and video recordings. 

Following the first article on the season opening concerts in Vienna in September, let us take a look at the Maestro’s final visits to conduct his beloved New York Philharmonic, recorded in their entirety by Deutsche Grammophon. 

After two weeks with the Vienna Philharmonic, Bernstein returned to New York. Four weeks later he was reunited with the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra he served as Music Director from 1958 to 1969, followed by an impressive series of guest appearances. 

Since his legendary debut with the orchestra at Carnegie Hall on 14 November 1943, stepping in for Bruno Walter, Bernstein shared a lifetime with the New York Philharmonic, performing and recording the entire canon of Western classical music, more or less, for Columbia and later, for DG. 

Given his vast Columbia catalogue with the orchestra, most of DG’s New York sessions featured re-recordings of repertoire. Whereas the earlier recordings had been (mostly) studio takes, the majority of the 1980s outings were captured on microphones in concerts performances. 

In the fall of 1989, Bernstein conducted eight performances at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on 19-31 October, featuring two intriguing playlists. On the first week, Bernstein and the orchestra played a programme featuring four works by Aaron Copland, followed by an all-Tchaikovsky affair on the second week. 

Since the mid-eighties, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic had been recording three types of repertoire for DG, including the symphonies of Gustav Mahler and the orchestral works of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, alongside notable forays into American music, featuring the works of Copland, Charles Ives, William Schuman, Roy Harris, Ned Rorem and David Del Tredici

Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic recorded two all-Copland albums for DG. The first one featured the Third Symphony (1946), taken form concert performances on 5-10 December 1985, Copland’s 85th anniversary year, with Harris’s Third Symphony (1938) and Schuman’s Symphony No. 3 (1941) on the first half, also recorded and released as a separate album. 

On disc, Copland’s Third Symphony was followed by a studio take of Quiet City (1940) for cor anglais, trumpet and strings, with Philip Smith and Thomas Stacy as soloist. 

Bernstein’s second Copland volume for DG featured the entire programme of the concerts on 19-24 October, with the concert order reshuffled to accommodate an album presentation. 

October 1989 in New York was slightly warmer than average, with the temperature reaching 78°F (25°C) on the 14th, the very same day Bernstein’a grandson, Evan, was born. Instead of the average 9 days of rainfall, there were 14 rainy days on October 1989, with the total of 5.37 inches (164 millimeters) of rain. 

When in New York, Bernstein needed no hotel suite, for his home, Apartment 23 of The Dakota, on West 72nd Street, overlooking Central Park and the Lake, was located just few blocks away from the Lincoln Center. Alongside vast bookshelves, two notable musical instruments were housed in the Bernstein apartment, an enormous Bösendorfer and a two-manual Dowd harpsichord.

Built in 1881-84, The Dakota has been the home to some legendary figures of the twentieth century Boris Karloff, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall and, most famously, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Joining the roster, Bernstein was a resident of The Dakota for the last sixteen years of his life.  

The first of Bernstein’s two intense weeks with the Philharmonic consisted of four concert performances of the all-Copland programme. The playlist was well-conceived, covering a four-decade-span of the composer’s multi-faceted career. 

As an opener, Copland’s brilliant five-movement suite for chamber orchestra, Music for the Theatre (1925) was heard, followed by his serial masterpiece Connotations for Orchestra (1962). After the intermission, Stanley Drucker appeared as soloist on the luminous Clarinet Concerto (1947-48), and the evening closed with the composer’s showpiece par excellence, El Salón México (1936).

Apart from the concerto, all other works were recorded for Columbia in the sixties by Bernstein and the NY Phil. In addition, there is an earlier take on El Salón México in the Columbia catalogue, with the Maestro conducting the Columbia Symphony, recorded in 1951, and coupled with Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde.

Its title notwithstanding, Music for the Theatre was conceived as a standalone concert suite. However, as Copland pointed out, “The music seemed to suggest a certain theatrical atmosphere, so after developing the idea into five short movements, I chose the title.” 

Dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 20 November 1925, the suite incorporates various jazz idioms, dazzlingly scored for a chamber orchestra. In the twenties, Music for the Theatre was regarded a scandalous affair, whereas in 1989 its amalgam of Paris, Stravinsky and American jazz, was wholeheartedly endorsed. 

In terms of performance, one could hardly imagine the score in a more uplifting sonic guise than the one provided by Bernstein and the members of the New York Philharmonic. The ever-marvelously articulated rhythms, gorgeous jazz sonorities, contemplative soliloquies, all marvellously laid out, to a riveting effect. 

With Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic musicians deliver Copland’s score to each and every nuance. The tempi are slightly slower here than on the 1962 studio take,  perhaps most notably in the opening Prologue and the fourth movement Burlesque

A glimpse on Bernstein’s conducting score reveals departures from printed tempo markings here and there, including the opening motto moderato, with the original ♩= 60 metronome marking changed to ♩= 50. On the closing page of the second movement Dance, a passage marked poco meno mosso is changed to molto meno mosso  

Alongside tempo adjustments, a closer examination of the score reveals Bernstein’s careful attention to dynamic nuances and phrasing, as manifested in the DG recording. 

Dedicated to Bernstein and the members of the New York Philharmonic, Copland’s gripping orchestral panorama, Connotations was premiered by its dedicatees upon the opening of the Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) of the Lincoln Centre on 23 September 1962, to a surprised, and, to some degree, shocked gala audience.

Connotations is hardly a gala piece in the traditional sense. Instead, it is a twenty-minute orchestral fresco, depicting the urgency of modern life, clad in astounding orchestral raiments. 

Scored for a large orchestra of triple winds, quadruple brass, six horns, multitude of percussion, calling for five players, orchestral piano doubling celesta and strings, Connotations is rooted in Copland’s highly personal take on serial techniques. While it is far removed from the iconic Coplandesque soundscapes of, say, Appalachian Spring (1943-44), the exquisite orchestral writing has Copland’s fingerprints all over. 

Solemn and strident, summoning unforeseen sonorities, Connotations is a dramatic masterstroke. Following its premiere, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic took the piece on their European tour and revived it on a couple of occasions, including the Maestro’s farewell season with the orchestra.

Alongside a recorded take on the premiere performance, Bernstein conducted a studio re-recording with the New York Philharmonic, first released in 1973. Yet neither of the Columbia recordings quite match the more generous sonics of the DG live take. 

In addition to enhanced engineering, the 1989 performance is, without question, the most inspired of the three. In the twenty seven years following the premiere, the score had matured well, sitting way more comfortably in an all-Copland programme. 

Coming in the heels of the radically youthful Music for the Theatre, both in concert and on the reshuffled disc, the serial endeavor of the composer in his venerable sixties displays a whole new kind of experimentalism. Instead of a crowd-pleaser, Copland chose to portray the heightened tensions of the era in Connotations. The 1962 premiere hardly won him many new friends, but the 1989 performance and its subsequent CD release has surely done so, including this writer. 

In similar vein to his modifications to the performing score of Copland’s Third Symphony (1944-46), Bernstein made a twenty-seven-bar cut in the score of Connotations as well, omitting a moderato lirico e cantabile passage on mm 325-351.  

Here and there, throughout the electrifying performance, one can hear Bernstein humming along the music, including some of those less-hummable passages. The orchestral texture, often quite complex, bears admirable transparency, even with the heavy brass and percussion thundering out in their compelling sonic might. 

The original 1991 cover of Deutsche Grammophon 431 672-2 all-Copland release with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic

Written in 1947-48 for Benny Goodman,the Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano inhabits a sounding realm quite apart form Connotations. Written in two movements, bridged together with a solo cadenza, the concert begins with a dreamscape, marked slowly and expressively and concludes in spirited dance rhythms, marked rather fast

One of the best-loved pieces by Copland, the 1989 performance was Bernstein’s first (and only) recorded take on the score. The sixties Columbia recording was conducted by the composer, with Goodman as soloist.

For the Bernstein performance, the solo part was taken up by Stanley Drucker, who joined the New York Philharmonic in 1948, assuming the position of the orchestra’s principal clarinetist in 1960. 

A family affair, the performance by Drucker and the Bernstein-lead New York Philharmonic is rooted in superlative teamwork and top-class musicianship. In his concert review on Saturday 21 October, the New York Times music critic Donal Henahan lauded Drucker for his ”marvel of glittering passagework” and dubbed Bernstein as ”a master accompanist”.   

Although one could analyze the performance to the bone, enough is said by settling on Mr Henahan’s verdict. For it is a joyful performance, with everything clicking together just marvellously. Over the years, it has been the performance I’ve revisited most often, alongside the Columbia one by Copland and Goodman. 

Rounding off the concert (and opening the disc), Bernstein and the orchestra provided an earthquake-of-a-performance of El Salón México. Premiered by the Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Carlos Chávez in 1937, the score was first heard in the US in the following year. 

Bernstein got to know El Salón México early on, arranging the score for piano. Subsequently published by Boosey and Hawkes, Bernstein’s solo piano version provided him the first real money from the music business, followed by a subsequent commission for an arrangement for two pianos, four hands.

Tempo-wise, the tremendous 1989 live performance has gained an extra minute or so, compared to the early-sixties studio take. Yet, it is the lavish orchestral canvas that makes the DG performance so special. With its full dynamic scale and ravishing sonorities, Bernstein’s final take on El Salón México is to be counted among his most memorable recordings. 

Dubbed as an ”apocalyptic close” by Newsday’s critic Tim Page, the performance by Bernstein and the New York Philharmnonic is one abundant with joy, yielding to ecstatic elation in sound.

With some remastering carried out along the reissues of the original album, DG’s sonics live up to today’s standards, serving the superlative performances well indeed. In its album guise, the playlist opens with El Salón México, followed by the Clarinet Concerto and concluding with Music for the Theatre and Connotations

However, for optimal listening experience, it is suggested to re-establish the original concert order, for its dramaturgy best serves the splendid programme as a whole. 

New York Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Stanley Drucker, clarinet

Aaron Copland: El Salón México (1936) – Popular type dance hall in Mexico City for orchestra

Aaron Copland: Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano (1947-48)

Aaron Copland: Music for the Theatre (1925) – Suite in five parts for small orchestra

Aaron Coland: Connotations for Orchestra (1962)

Recorded at the Avery Fischer Hall (now David Geffen Hall) on 19, 20, 21 & 24 October 1989

Deutsche Grammophon 431 672-2 (1991), 1 CD 

© Jari Kallio 

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