I wasn’t expecting to wander into controversial
waters with this CD. While Dan Morgan made it an April Recording
of the Month
, praising both transcriptions and performances, Byzantion
, saying the transcriptions “turn a memorable
orchestral [body of] work into something entirely forgettable.”
In fact, the disc seems to have diminished Byzantion’s respect
for the composer: “Bernstein was, in the end, a better conductor
than composer or thinker.” Not that the criticism is very harsh;
it’s like saying Wilde was better at plays than novels, or I prefer
to interpret it that way.
Anyhow! My opinion is sadly smack in the middle. I like the transcriptions
but prefer the originals. The performances are exceedingly good and
excitingly recorded, but Bernstein conducted his forces with more panache.
I think especially of the slow tempo for the horn tune in On the
, though the present band is utterly thrilling in that
The On the Town
transcriptions are an undoubted highlight, witty
and probably a ton of fun to play. They’re by Marice Stith; that’s
really how you spell his name. I also think the Divertimento
works particularly well in the wind band setting, and this performance
of the final march raises the roof.
If you like both Bernstein and wind bands, this is especially easy to
fall for. If you’re like me and wish to impress on the world just
how good America’s music schools are, this is a terrific demonstration
album. If your primary concern is hearing pieces like On the Waterfront
at their very best, well, you are better off with the original orchestrations.
If you think Bernstein was a second-rate composer, I guess this is unlikely
to change your opinion, but stick around ...
My colleague Byzantion has some unkind words for Bernstein’s music
: “His light-hearted music for the 'Auto-da-fé',
where Pangloss and Candide are brutally tortured, is but one example
of Bernstein's utter misreading of Voltaire's satire and sarcasm ….
as this arrangement makes clear, the music's lack of correspondence
to the original spirit of the text is almost total.”
has made an indelible impression on
the American psyche. In the Season 1 finale of Mad Men
Campbell’s somewhat oafish father alludes to a “hit song”,
“Tend Your Garden”, a reference to “Make Our Garden
Grow”, which had been playing on Broadway not long before the
scene took place. Why does Bernstein’s score continue to pop up
in concert and on popular television? I’m worried Byzantion has
missed the point.
isn’t about Enlightenment France;
it’s about modern America. Yes, the music is light: it ‘glitters
and is gay’. Why is that? Why did we listen to the Monkees while
napalming Vietnam? The United States is a global pioneer in the art
of using entertainment to distract ourselves from pain. As a Texan I
regularly meet people who believe Texas is the finest place in the world
though millions of its children do not have access to medical care.
Its gun ranges, margaritas, and juvenile athletics are, after all, unsurpassed.
America has a proud national tradition of Panglosserie
a counterculture has been aware of this at least since the time of Mark
Twain’s “War Prayer”. Thus we have a tradition of
art which sparkles, shines, and dances while masking despair at an unchangeable
status quo: see the novels of Vonnegut or Heller, or the conscious emptiness
of pop art. More recently David Foster Wallace’s life-work diagnoses
a nation so addicted to entertainment, to distraction, that it will
do anything necessary to numb itself to the agony of honest living.
The title of his novel Infinite Jest
- in which every character
is an addict to something
- derives from an imaginary film so
entertaining that its viewers die, since they will not even pause long
enough to eat. Maybe it will stream on Netflix.
Yes, Bernstein scores “light-hearted music” while characters
are “brutally tortured”. These things happen in our world
and we don’t care. We’re too busy watching cat videos. Fifty
years on, Candide
looks more like a masterpiece, and more like
See also reviews by Dan