Music Director’s Message, April 28

Music Director's Message, April 28, 2018

“All Passes: Art Alone Endures”

This is the inscription on Chicago’s Fine Arts Building, a wonderful Romanesque structure built in 1884 where I studied as a young man and later worked. It is adapted from a short poem by Théophile Gautier, a 19th century French poet, who goes on to assert that “the bust outlives the city, and the simple coin unearthed by a peasant reveals the image of an emperor.” So, Art Endures: what about artists?

Do you recognize these names? Carl Reinecke, Hans von Bülow, Guido Cantelli, Kurt Adler, Eugen Jochum, Artur Nikisch, Hans Richter, Fritz Busch, Willem Mengelberg, Herman Levi. They are all great conductors, world-famous in their times, but now mostly forgotten.  The same fate befalls great singers and instrumental virtuosi (and actors and dancers, for that matter). The greatest performances are inevitably surpassed by the “brick and mortar” arts: musical compositions, literature, paintings, sculpture.

Fifty years ago, everybody knew Leonard Bernstein’s name. His Young People’s Concerts brought him into every American household that had a television set. He did it all: conductor, educator, TV personality, pianist, author, intellect, social activist, advocate for peace. As a composer he seemed to have no boundaries, writing for Broadway, film, ballet, opera and orchestra in styles ranging from jazz to serialism. The first American-born, American-educated conductor of a major symphony orchestra, he became the most sought-after guest conductor in the world. It certainly didn’t hurt that he was dashingly handsome.

Lenny (everybody called him Lenny) wanted more than anything else to be remembered as a great composer. In the last stanza of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy, which Beethoven adapted for his Ninth Symphony, the poet writes “Seek Him [God] in the starry firmament; Above the stars must He dwell.” Bernstein reached above the stars in his quest for musical meaning, stretching the limits of symphonic music and musical theater. His three symphonies invoked the prophet Jeremiah, W.H. Auden’s “Age of Anxiety”, and Kaddish, the ancient Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead. His MASS: A Musical Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers uses the Catholic Mass as a springboard to explore the crisis of faith and decline of American culture. But in the end, Bernstein’s conducting career squeezed out the time and concentration he needed to compose. His obituaries often led with “Conductor and composer of West Side Story,” which he wrote in 1957 at the age of 39.

When we began planning our Bernstein festival a year ago, we had two goals in mind. First, to celebrate the life and achievements of a man who can justifiably called the most influential American musician of the 20th century. Second, we wanted to both remind our audience of the incomparable greatness of this remarkable man, whose presence in our world and passion for music was far greater than the sum of his many roles. Happy birthday (a bit early), Lenny!

Steven Larsen