Jeanne Golan, Pianist

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Bernstein's First Love

Prelude, Fugue & Riffs, Summer, 1999

by Jeanne Golan

Every family has its inherent stories. When I was twelve years old and first learning Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata, my father began telling me one of his favorite stories from his school days at the esteemed Boston Latin School. Dad took great pride in relating how a fellow classmate performed a different Beethoven sonata by memory every Friday afternoon for the entire student body at the School Assembly. The strong impression this made on my father was a combination of inspiration at seeing such an accomplishment by another scrappy first-generation Jew from Dorchester, and his first exposure to this noble opus performed so vividly. (The strength of this early impression may have led him to marry a pianist, insuring a lifetime of music in my parents' home.) The pianist was Leonard Bernstein, and today, having spent the last several weeks immersed in listening and viewing Bernstein at the keyboard, I am grateful for the perspective that Dad's recollection provides.

The one word that seems to encompass Bernstein's performances is "classical." A classical aesthetic epitomizes proportion and clarity. For the musician as interpreter, this ideal would guide him in his understanding of musical scores and the composer's intent. For the musician as pianist/athlete, this ideal would lead him to develop a facility where a relaxed, balanced torso and supple arms support the passagework of strong but dexterous fingers. While Bernstein was a natural in both of these realms, every aspect of his training espoused classicism as an ideal. Boston Latin School and Harvard University in the 1930's were models of classical academia. His three main piano teachers all subscribed to classical principles of playing that convert the body into a graceful mechanism through which the music could be imparted to the keyboard; they were Helen Coates, the assistant of Boston's renowned pianist, Heinrich Gebhart, Gebhart himself, and finally Isabella Vengerova at the Curtis Institute.

With Bernstein's capacity to meld form and function, the result is pure expression. In the Shostakovich Concerto #2, the strings of flying octaves are stunningly executed, yet when placed into Bernstein's conception of this work as one that will not give into sentimentality, the overall effect is breathtaking. In his performance of the Ravel Concerto in G, every physical gesture serves musical intent, ranging from the dazzling passagework of the outer movements to the mesmerizing blues of the Adagio. In essence, Bernstein comes to embody the piece, putting himself aside as his keyboard choreography becomes the vessel through which the work breathes and evolves.

In the orchestral tuttis, Bernstein's conducting is simply an expansion of his pianism. As he welcomes and guides the orchestra from the piano bench, the effect is much like rings emanating from a pebble tossed in a pond. Bernstein's performances of piano concerti have the intimacy of chamber music. With the orchestra providing its plethora of colors, he relishes in the pianism of the solo part. The opposite occurs in Bernstein's approach to Mahler songs and solo piano music of Copland and Bernstein. Perhaps because these pieces are structurally monumental, perhaps because his palate of sound possibilities is so vast, Bernstein treats the piano orchestrally. For the Mahler, he is not afraid to create harshness or distortion to capture the cruelty and despair often visited in Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The architectural quality of the Copland Sonata with its big block chords is startling. In striking the opening chords, Bernstein pushes the piano toward its clangorous extreme. Yet even then, he voices these chords so that they don't simply exist as momentary events, but create consequence for this massive and complex work.

The piano served Bernstein well as he built lasting and important relationships in every arena of his life. Helen Coates became his protective and nurturing personal secretary. Aaron Copland discovered a kindred spirit when the unknown Leonard, on a dare from Copland, played the older composer's Piano Variations at a party. His crackerjack sightreading made for rollicking four-hand sessions with his wife Felicia, impressive score-reading at the keyboard for Serge Koussevitsky at Tanglewood, and impromptu jam sessons with his new friends, Comden and Green. He equally forged a dynamic relationship with his audience, which can be experienced on many wonderful CD's and videos too numerous to mention here. In these performances, his obvious physical comfort and control is a delight to see, while his zest for music and music-making is infectious. As Bernstein noted in his piano composition Touches, the piano was his way of making "gestures of love, especially between composer and performer, and performer and listener."

© Jeanne Golan 1999

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