Another Bernstein Inheritance
July 8, 2008
To say that someone lives on after his or her earthly journey is ended is a cliché that is easily tossed off. But I was struck again at a concert last night with how profoundly right this worn image can be in the case of Leonard Bernstein.
It was the opening concert of the Summer Stars Classical Music Series of the River to River Festival, given by a remarkable young clarinet-piano duo, José Franch-Ballester and Anna Polonsky. When I mentioned that series here before, it was without any suspicion of what a high experience that first evening would represent, or without any expectation of writing about it afterwards.
Before the two players incarnated Debussy’s “Première Rhapsodie,” Mr. Franch-Ballester told us how his whole view of Impressionism stemmed from a memorable experience of the Bernstein Young People’s Concert that featured Debussy’s “La Mer.” Even before the inspired performance that followed, I was struck how I, as a child in my own land-locked American fastness, had watched that same program on television without yet having the capacity to imagine that another boy could one day be motivated by the same program, experienced from his Mediterranean paradise of Moncofa. The potency of modern media, pervasive as it is, still has the potential to surprise us in the face of such phenomena as the laser-like conviction projected by these two young people — Curtis Institute alumni like Bernstein himself — stemming in part from that evergreen recorded broadcast from Carnegie Hall so long ago.
When going to this free concert to inform myself about the series and to revel in one of those summer concerts that can be attended in tee-shirt and shorts (a privilege not to be undervalued by a habitual dresser-upper for our more exalted venues), I had no idea that I was about to hear one of the most extraordinary musical evenings of the many I’ve spent in the concert halls and theaters. We are always told that instrumental music ideally takes its departure from the human voice, but never have I heard a clarinetist sing as Mr. Franch-Ballester does. (It’s surely significant that he comes from a family of clarinetists and zarzuela singers.) This impression lasted through — even intensified through — luminous performances of Brahms’s testamentary Second Sonata, Poulenc’s 1962 Sonata (which had its first performance posthumously in that same Carnegie Hall from which the Bernstein-Philharmonic Impressionism broadcast had originated and had been premiered by Benny Goodman and, yes, Leonard Bernstein at the piano). The printed program ended with a “Fantasy on Themes from Verdi’s La Traviata” by the 19th-century flute virtuoso Donato Lovreglio that tested the, to me, still unexpectedly capacious limits of the clarinet’s vocalism. The heartily-demanded encore was a Richard Stoltzman take on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” that continued the display of uncanny effects achievable by a quite different style of singer.
I don’t write reviews on this site, mostly because I don’t want to spend time and energy writing negatively here about works and performances. But I must speak emphatically of Anna Polonsky. She is a pianist I will go to hear at every future opportunity. She seems to me a chamber-player of genius and at least the equal of the clarinet virtuoso whose remarkable abilities I’m dilating on.
During the ninetieth-anniversary celebrations of Leonard Bernstein, we will recall much of his legacy discernible in his recordings with his home-base orchestra in New York and his hometown orchestra in Boston and at Tanglewood, and the mark he left on ensembles abroad, notably the Vienna Philharmonic. We will emphatically note his influence on song through mastery of the Broadway musical and through his other vocal works large and small. Carnegie Hall, that temple of so many of his triumphs, will keep its own Bernsteinian fire alive in extensive celebrations. The recorded testimony of supreme vocal artists like Eileen Farrell and Marilyn Horne will testify to the joy great singers took in collaborations with him. The New York Festival of Song and far-flung projects of the Bernstein family’s enterprises will pass on to new generations the ethos of the man and his art. But, somehow, I’ve never been more struck with the idea of artistic immortality than I was at last evening’s rather sparsely-attended instance of utterly Parnassian music-making. Indeed, Bernstein lives.