Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Transcriptions for Wind Band
Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy (1961) [0:42]
orch. Sid Ramin
Candide overture (1956) [4:51]
transcr. Clare Grundman
Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront (1954) [19:52]
transcr. Jay Bocock
Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (1945) [10:24]
transcr. Marice Stith
Divertimento (1980) [14:56]
transcr. Clare Grundman
Candide Suite (1956) [12:37]
transcr. Clare Grundman
University of South Carolina Wind Ensemble/Scott Weiss
rec. 20-23 October 2011, Koger Center, Columbia, South Carolina
NAXOS 8.573056 [63:22]
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 was downright dissatisfied, 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 Waterfront, though the present band is utterly thrilling in that suite’s climaxes.
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 to Candide: “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.”
Bernstein’s Candide has made an indelible impression on the American psyche. In the Season 1 finale of Mad Men, Trudy 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.
Bernstein’s Candide 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, though 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 an indictment.
Easy to recommend if you like Bernstein or great bands; harder to advocate if you just want to hear the music at its finest.
See also reviews by Dan Morgan & Byzantion
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