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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Mambo from West Side Story (1957) [2:21]
Slava! A Political Overture (1977) [4:08]
Suite for Orchestra from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (arr. Harmon) (1976) [17:02]
CBS Music (orch. Ramin, Gottlieb, Sunderland) (1978)* [7:16]
Times Square Ballet from On the Town (1944) [1:10]
A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet (8 Variations on “New York, New York” from On the Town, by Berio, Kirchner, Druckman, Foss, Corigliano, John Williams, Takemitsu, and William Schuman) (1988)* [21:28]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
*World Premiere Recording
rec. Sala São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil, December 2016
NAXOS 8.559813 [53:46]

These recordings were issued earlier in the Bernstein Centenary year as part of an 8-CD set of Marin Alsop’s Leonard Bernstein performances (reviews). Now this programme and a companion disc that includes the Fancy Free ballet, orchestrations of Anniversaries, and two overtures have been released separately to close out the anniversary year. For the most part, the current disc contains odds and ends for the Bernstein completist.

No conductor does Leonard Bernstein better today than Marin Alsop and these performances by the excellent São Paulo Symphony demonstrate well her belief in every measure of the composer’s music. It is fitting for the CD insert to have a photo on the cover of a much younger Alsop with her mentor, Bernstein. Much of the music on the disc, though, is rather negligible, the exception being the tribute paid to Bernstein under the title “A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet” by eight composers who had a personal or professional connection to him.

With a timing of under an hour, the disc could have easily accommodated all of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. As it is, with only the Mambo, one feels shortchanged. The overture Slava! with its shouted political slogans does not wear particularly well, although it begins with what sounds like an outtake from West Side Story. The orchestral suite arranged by Charlie Harmon from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue contains some memorable tunes, not least “The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon March,” but that loses a lot without its lyrics. To really enjoy the march, one must turn to Thomas Hampson with the London Symphony and London Voices under Kent Nagano in the concert version of the musical, A White House Cantata.
CBS Music receives its recorded premiere here in orchestrations by three different hands. The work was originally composed as part of the radio network’s 50th anniversary. The music has that distinctive Bernstein sound and the orchestrations do justice to the composer. It consists of a Fanfare and Titles, Quiet Music, Blues, Waltz, and Chorale, and is quite enjoyable.
However, the main attraction of this programme are the eight tributes to Bernstein, which his friends and colleagues composed for his 70th birthday celebration.

A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet was first performed by the Boston Symphony as part of a four-day birthday celebration in August 1988. While the basis for the variations is “New York, New York” from On the Town, the composers freely quote from other music by Bernstein as well as compositions of others that he conducted with some frequency, including Copland (in particular Fanfare for the Common Man), Beethoven, and Wagner. Surprisingly, the piece holds together rather well and is worth an occasional listen. My favourite variation is Lukas Foss’s jazzy take on “New York, New York” where the piano has a leading role. John Williams also entertains with a virtuosic romp that quotes not only from On the Town, but also “America” from West Side Story, and like some of the others concludes with a bit of “Happy Birthday.”

For those aficionados who did not invest in the full Alsop set or already have her other recordings of the composer’s major works, this will make a good addendum in the celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary.

Leslie Wright



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