Leonard Bernstein

Young, fit, and ‘Fancy Free’

On an April evening in 1944, a young dancer from Portland made history as a star of Jerome Robbins' first ballet. What it felt like to be there.

In this excerpt from her new book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, dance critic and frequent ArtsWatch contributor Martha Ullman West writes about Oregon native Reed’s crucial role in the creation of an American classic, Jerome Robbins’ 1944 Fancy Free, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and was set to a score by Leonard Bernstein. Reed danced the role of one of the three young women who go out on the town with three sailors on shore leave. West’s book explores the growth in the 20th century of an expressly American style of ballet, and of the vital roles that dancer (and later, ballet mistress for New York City Ballet) Reed and dancer/choreographer Bolender played in the process.

Excerpted from Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet by Martha Ullman West. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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April 18, 1944, the opening night of Fancy Free, Robbins’s first ballet, was the stuff of artists’ dreams. Nobody, least of all Robbins; Leonard Bernstein, whose first theatrical score it was; or any of the cast members, including Reed, imagined they would take more than twenty curtain calls and make American ballet history. “We all knew something very special had just happened,” Bolender, who was in the audience, said decades later. [Poet and dance critic Edwin] Denby described the scene at the Metropolitan Opera House:

Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, the world premiere given by Ballet Theatre last night at the Metropolitan, was so big a hit the young participants all looked a little dazed as they took their bows. But besides being a smash hit, Fancy Free is a very remarkable comedy piece. Its sentiment of how people live in this country is completely intelligent and completely realistic. Its pantomime and its dances are witty, exuberant, and at every moment they feel natural. It is a direct, manly piece: there isn’t any of that coy showing off of material that dancers are doing so much nowadays. The whole number is as sound as a superb vaudeville turn; in ballet terminology it is a perfect American character ballet.37

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Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Keep the stories coming

An invitation to be a part of ArtsWatch. Plus: centenarians Lenny and Merce; Lauren Hare's America; a little song and a little dance.

AS WE MOVE CLOSER TO THANKSGIVING DAY, all of us here at ArtsWatch would like to thank you for the support you’ve given us and ask you to join us as we prepare for another year. You, our readers and financial contributors, make what we do possible. We’ve published more than 450 stories so far in 2019 – news, reviews, previews, analyses, portraits, and deeper insights about the arts. Here’s just a taste of what you’ve helped make happen this year:
 

  • Exquisite Gorge: Friderike Heuer’s 11-part series chronicling Maryhill Museum’s epic 66-foot print project to document the Columbia River.
  • Visual arts coming and going: Bob Hicks’s extensive inside look at the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, and Barry Johnson’s comprehensive coverage of the Oregon College of Art and Craft’s demise, which topped our most-read list for 2019.
  • Monumental undertakings: Brett Campbell’s in-depth take on the collaboration of PHAME, which provides training and opportunities for developmentally challenged performers, with Portland Opera to premiere the opera The Poet’s Shadow.
  • Theater profiles: Deep portraits by Bobby Bermea and Marty Hughley of Asae Dean, Rodolfo Ortega, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bill Rauch, the OUTwright Festival, PassinArt’s Black Nativity, and the state of Oregon theater.
  • On the move: Elizabeth Whelan’s profiles of a new generation of dancers and choreographers who are turning Portland into a creative mecca.
  • Minding the gap: Damien Geter’s examination of the diversity deficit in classical music performances and suggestions to remedy it.
  • Picture this: Photo essays of Beaverton Night Market, Nrityotsava, Día de Muertos, colors of India, Waterfront Blues Festival, to name a few.
Ghanaian drumming and dance by Nii Ardey Allote & Nikome at Beaverton Night Market, subject of one of many ArtsWatch photo essays in 2019. Photo: Joe Cantrell

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A century of Leonard Bernstein

An exhibition of mementos, film clips, and other artifacts from the cultural giant's long career at the Oregon Jewish Museum

by EVAN LEWIS

Leonard Bernstein is a complicated artist to reckon with.  Composer, conductor, teacher, activist, father, cultural figure– the word “polymath” seems designed specifically to try and find a small word to wrap all of his roles into one. 

The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s exhibit Leonard Bernstein at 100 runs through January 26, 2020.  Curated by the GRAMMY Museum in LA, The New York Public Library, and members of the Bernstein family, the exhibit chronologically illustrates the conductor’s life through photos, documents, mementos, and, most successfully, film clips of his performances. It’s a great exhibit for those who already know a lot about the Maestro (as LB is often referred to, in honor of his amazing conducting career), or those who are learning about him for the first time.  

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

In the interest of full disclosure: when I lived in NYC 15 years ago, fresh out of college, the first job I got was as the administrative assistant at The Leonard Bernstein Office, the organization that manages his estate; and after that I became the personal assistant to the man who had been LB’s personal assistant, Jack Gottlieb.  So to say that I feel like I have heard a lot of his music, thought a lot about his life, and generally been in a musical world with Bernstein always as a presence over my shoulder is a bit of an understatement. I ended up being asked to write this review without any of this being known; just one of those happy, musical accidents. Portland’s a small town, you always have to be on your best behavior because you never know who you’ll run into!

The exhibit starts with an overview of his early years– letters, photos, childhood in Boston– and then you enter a room where each display focuses on a different part of his music and career. Musically, it’s hard to mentally wrap your mind around the boundaries of his creative output and varied styles. Somehow it seems almost comical to remember one composer was responsible for On The Town, Candide, West Side Story, MASS, Symphony 2: The Age of Anxiety, Clarinet Sonata, etc. etc. etc. Bernstein by all accounts was someone hungry to experience all facets of life– read Jamie Bernstein’s excellent memoir Famous Father Girl for more anecdotes about that– and his catalogue of works shows that character trait in action.  Musicals, operas, film scores, “serious” concert works, rock-inflected works, musical lectures– there is no genre he didn’t dabble in. 

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

Last weekend, his daughter Jamie Bernstein was in town to speak about her memoir at the museum, and later that afternoon to introduce Portland’s own Bravo Youth Orchestra in a concert at the museum. Bravo is a proud part of El Sistema, and is dedicated to musical education with the mission to “transform the lives of underserved youth through intensive orchestral music instruction emphasizing collaboration, promoting self-confidence, and creating a community where children thrive.” Ms. Bernstein now, in a surprise to herself, does a lot of music education work in the vein of her father’s Young Peoples’ Concerts, so this musical meeting was a perfect fit. One item in the exhibit is a baton of Bernstein’s that he conducted Mahler with; it was loaned to Gustavo Dudamel, the most famous graduate of El Sistema, for a Mahler performance of his own. Long story short, he ended up snapping the baton at the end of the work, to his great distress. The snapped baton is on display.

In wandering through the exhibit with Ms. Bernstein, I asked her what her favorite item in the exhibit was.  Without pausing, she marched into the first room, planted her feet, and pointed decisively at what looked to be a torture device. “This, this is my favorite,” she said.  

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE with Frederics Permanent Wave machine at the left. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

From a distance, it’s hard to discern what this medusa tangle of wires even is, but it is, of course, a Frederics Permanent Wave machine.  Bernstein’s father Samuel had emigrated to the US from Ukraine and got into the beauty product business in Massachusetts, eventually becoming the exclusive seller of this machine of beauty/torture to salons in the Northeast.  The sales of this machine made Sam’s hair and beauty supply business a big success, and Sam always wanted his son to join him and, eventually, to take it over. Sam wouldn’t pay for music lessons for his son, believing that music wasn’t a stable career (I mean…he’s not exactly wrong) and that he should continue on his father’s legacy of providing perms to the women of Boston. After his son had become a worldwide phenomenon, Sam was asked by a reporter why he had refused to pay for piano lessons. The elder Bernstein replied, “Well, how was I supposed to know he’d turn out to be Leonard Bernstein?”

I asked her at the end of the exhibit if she had a favorite piece of music by him.  She said MASS held a special place in her heart since it seemed to have so much of Bernstein himself in the music and staging, but her real answer would have to be “whatever piece I listened to last.”  It is certainly true that he is hard to pigeonhole, and that one moment your favorite could be the Overture to Candide, and then you hear “America” from West Side Story and think that could be your favorite, and then a snippet of Serenade and you think, well….

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

Because the Maestro’s biography is so wide-ranging and star-studded, it’s hard for one exhibit to delve too deeply into any one aspect of his life– there really quite literally is not enough space. As a result, some of the sections feel like the CliffsNotes version of his biography– his activism is mentioned in one display, with a printout of his (lengthy) FBI file, and while that facet of him and his wife’s life could have its own exhibit, it does leave you wanting more depth, more detail about that part of his life. It’s a tricky balance to find, considering how much time could be spent on, for example, West Side Story alone, that the exhibit tries to speak to both people who know nothing at all about Bernstein as well as those familiar with his career. For the most part, the exhibit is successful in touching on all the major points of his life, and makes you want to go home and listen to everything.

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

In the end, when the exhibit is taken as a whole, all the items and photos and personal effects and printed anecdotes are fun to see and read and have novelty value, but only give you the outlines of the man.  It is the film at the end, showing him in action as a conductor, as a performer (and, most memorably as a composer/performer at the piano playing Rhapsody in Blue) that the hairs on your arm stand up.  It is then he feels most alive and vibrant and in reach–  his whole body making music, coaxing sounds out of an orchestra of old men with sideburns, music that was written hundreds of years ago and performed 40 plus years ago– that draws a crowd in the museum. Everytime I walked past the screen, there were people standing in silence, watching, taking in the Maestro in action.  That’s his true legacy: his ability to make music speak to everyone.

Evan Lewis, born and raised in Portland, Oregon, received his Masters in Music in composition from Mannes College, The New School (NYC) in 2008, where he was a winner of the Jean Schneider Goberman/Alaria Competition and had his orchestral work Alecto premiered at the 2008 Contemporary Music Festival by the Mannes Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Michael Adelson. He is on the board of Cascadia Composers, and has had his writings featured in the LA Chamber Orchestra newsletter, KUSC’s member guide, and social media and blog posts for other musical groups.

ArtsWatch Weekly: old, new, always

Same old story? Brash new wave? In Oregon arts & culture this week, old and new mix it up, and it's sometimes tough to tell which is which

ART IS ABOUT STRIDING BOLDLY INTO THE FUTURE and discovering the new. The Portland Art Museum, for instance, is getting ready to open the first major retrospective of the work of American artist Hank Willis Thomas, whose photography, sculpture, video, and collaborative public art projects turn their focus sharply and sometimes satirically on the flashpoints of contemporary culture and the struggle for social justice and civil rights. Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal …, which will run Oct. 12-Jan. 12, is the museum’s big fall-season attraction, and a central part of a run of shows in the next few months about the work of artists of color: the essential Portland painter Isaka Shamsud-Din, the great Robert ColescottFrida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the just-opened exhibition Question Bridge: Black Males.

Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, from the series Strange Fruit, 2011. Digital c-print. 50 x 73 inches. © Hank Willis Thomas, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

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Oregon Symphony: “More intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly”

Orchestra's fall concerts feature music by Leonard Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, and Drake

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

It was October 27, and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra was about to play music by Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Norman, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It had been an especially violent week in this violent country. Over the preceding week, pipe bombs had been sent to several prominent political figures. A few days earlier, it was the Jeffersontown grocery store murders. And, the day of the concert, the massacre in Pittsburgh.

Even the normally unflappable OSO President Scott Showalter was visibly shaken. He quoted the above portion of Bernstein’s remarks at a concert following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. There are many Bernstein compositions that might have been more literally appropriate than Three Dances from On the Town, but all the composer’s more serious music requires choirs. Carlos Kalmar and the band got into it anyways, muted trumpets and trombones swinging and strutting, the winds bluesy and somber, Kalmar hopping on one foot for a big brassy New York breakdown, arms a-waving for quick meter changes, shoulders grooving hard.

Jeffrey Kahane takes his bows with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra

Turns out, these dances were just the right balm. And more appropriate than it may have seemed: the movie is about soldiers on leave during World War II, a trio of singing and dancing sailors who, for all we know, have just engaged in combat (or are about to). Nothing wrong with having a little fun as a form of grief and stress relief.

Enjoy the Concept

Andrew Norman’s new composition, Split, went the other way: the ersatz piano concerto, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for pianist Jeffrey Kahane—who performed with the OSO that night—is a sonic reflection of the mental fracturing we all suffer daily in our existence as harried screen addicts. Kalmar, in introducing the piece, described it as being about “all the many things that bombard our brain; Norman is fascinated with the bombardment and what technology does to us.” The music, Kalmar explained, was meant to imitate the feel of constantly switching channels and scrolling through media feeds, “and then you actually sit and enjoy something for five minutes.”

“I hope you enjoy the concept,” Kalmar concluded.

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Vancouver Symphony Orchestra & Nicole Buetti: keeping orchestra music alive

Orchestra opens season with original music composed by one of its members

“Good evening everyone!” Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Salvador Brotons told the full house at Skyview Concert Hall. “This evening: all American music. We usually play only the dead composers,” including this night’s classics by Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. But this time, he said, “we have another piece from another American—and is alive! And she is here!”

He passed the microphone to the orchestra’s contrabassonist Nicole Buetti, author of the September 30 concert’s opening Odyssey Overture. “It’s always scary as a composer to put your music in front of your peers,” Buetti said, turning to her fellow symphony players. Pointing to her seat, way back at the far end of the wind section by the upright basses, she said, “I’m fortunate to sit in the middle of the orchestra: the best seat in the house.”

The overture is dedicated to Buetti’s father, who instilled in her a love for science, Star Trek, and Star Wars. He championed the piece, calling its melody his favorite and asking when she would finally set it for orchestra. “Well, dad,” Buetti said, gesturing to the orchestra behind her, preparing to play her music, “twice in one weekend: pretty good!” She concluded by hinting at the overture’s hidden programmatic element. “Rather than tell you the story I had in my head—though it’s a good one!—I’d like to invite you to sit back and imagine your own story.”

Mayuko Kamio plays Barber with VSO and Brotons. Photo: Paul Quackenbush

This is not only my first time hearing Buetti’s music, it’s my first time hearing the VSO. The brooding, cinematic opening gives me a pretty good idea of what this orchestra would sound like playing the Firebird Suite. Concertmaster Eva Richey’s solo violin hovers over heavy low strings and dark winds, Elfman-y contrabassoon work from Buetti answered by Barbara Heilmair’s spooky bass clarinet. A bouncy trio in 5/8 starts up, passing from Buetti to the other bassoons and thence to ecstatic trumpets and trombones, then a nice little oboe solo from Alan Juza and the return of that gorgeous melody in the strings as the horns blend into the ever-building wall of sound. If Bartók had Gone West to write music for action movies, it might have sounded like this.

A big, dramatic finish out of Goldsmith or Horner brings it to a close, and a big grin breaks over Buetti’s face. I jot in my notes, “colorful, confident orchestration.” And, more significantly, “melody! hooray for melody!”

Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio started up Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with a quiet, delicate opening, supported by rich horns (I dare say this section might be better than Oregon Symphony’s). The second movement, another lovely oboe solo answered by sweet cellos and a high clean violin section. Kamio’s line turns tragic, light and bittersweet, a vigorous vibrato, molto schmaltzando, as muted trumpets echo mysteriously in the distance. As the last movement’s virtuosic perpetuo moto got underway Kamio began to really pick up steam, full orchestra punctuating her hoedown grooving, Florian Conzetti bending way over his timpani to play a quick snare drum flourish, Brotons’s legs braced wide for the big ending, a hop and a sting and it was over.

After a quick consultation with Brotons, Kamio came back out for an encore, a dazzling set of variations on that famous theme of Paganini’s, her playing rough and weird (in a good way), fancy battuto strokes and left-hand pizzicato pull-offs that put me in mind of Eddie van Halen. A few “wow”s susserated around the audience.

Music from the Theater

Before the Bernstein set—symphonic suites from Candide and West Side Story—Brotons talked a bit about the composer, whose centennial celebration continues to enliven music halls around the country. “Bernstein was a complete musician, one of the greatest of the 20th century,” Brotons said. He gave a little background on the composer’s operetta Candide, saying there is “not much difference between operetta and musical: is light, but also intense and beautiful.” He concluded by relating the story behind “Make Our Garden Grow,” the justly popular song that closes both the operetta and Charlie Harmon’s orchestral suite. “I hope it will make you cry,” Brotons said, “and I hope you will make your garden grow.”

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