By Bob Adamcik, KSO percussionist
A classical musician who was known around the world and recognized in popular culture? The 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein gives us a chance to look at his life and career as an unprecedented force in music and society as a performer, conductor, and teacher. He was also a civil rights activist who was an antiwar protester.
I grew up watching him conduct the New York Philharmonic in Saturday afternoon Young People’s Concerts. This was in the days before cable and hundreds of channels, so I’m sure he reached a bunch of other kids as well. Bernstein was energetic and smart and found ways to talk to kids on their level. He even managed to play songs by The Beatles. The shows are worth watching and are easily available on YouTube. If you get a chance, you should check out his lectures at Harvard about music. They are designed for both musicians and non-musicians, but Bernstein manages to explain some pretty heavy concepts in music.
In addition to the TV shows that I saw, the movie version of “West Side Story” won the Oscar for Best Picture so that many people were aware of Bernstein’s music. It was a musical where people hate, fight and get stabbed on stage and it was exciting. I grew up listening to the soundtrack as a kid, and can still perform “The Jet Song” scene verbatim. It was the first time most people had heard Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, although he is now known as the greatest Broadway composer/lyricist of our time. Much of my musical vocabulary has been shaped (for better or worse) by Bernstein’s use of the musical interval of a tritone. It’s the first two notes of the Jets’ whistle and the first two notes of the song, “Cool.” How was I supposed to get that out of my head and avoid it in college when I was trying to pass classical theory? I always thought the interval sounded, well,… cool.
Classical composers are not well known by the general public anymore. Bernstein and Aaron Copland were probably the last two who were widely known. But in the 70’s, ABC’s late night talk show (“The Dick Cavett Show”) used the main theme from “Candide” as its own theme. People eagerly anticipated the two composer’s next pieces and discussed them. When Bernstein’s, “Mass” premiered in 1971 at the opening of the Kennedy Center, it was talked about on national TV. Some people were shocked, some people loved it, but the public knew about it. And in it, Bernstein had addressed faith, serious doubt, and included elements of rock and roll. By this time, he had spoken out about civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and the crisis in religious faith. He was relevant, even though he was composing music for orchestras, and his relevancy continues now. I can’t think of another composer who shows up in two comedy routines almost 60 years apart (Stan Freberg’s “United States of America” and John Mulaney’s new Netflix comedy special, “Kid Gorgeous.” )
Part of Bernstein’s mission was to integrate different types of music and life to describe the 20th century. His music dealt with integrating different cultures, doubts about the existence of God, whether there was a need for the war in Vietnam, and the anxiety that many people felt in their everyday lives. This meant that even though some people had a hard time with Bernstein’s music, he managed to stay in the limelight. He was a teacher, conductor, composer, and even an activist. There’s a great article in The Guardian about all of his different roles.
He provided inspiration to many composers and performers. If you’re a fan of “Hamilton”, as I am, then you realize that there are a lot of similarities between Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernstein. In “Hamilton”, Miranda calls Alexander, “a polymath”, someone who is good at a lot of things, and the description fits Bernstein himself.
Toward the end of his life, Bernstein was renowned for his conducting, especially his recordings of Mahler’s symphonies. I’d always hoped to be able to perform with Bernstein, and I had friends who were able to play in festivals with him. I wasn’t far enough along in my career to have that opportunity when he died in 1990. Getting to play “West Side Story” twice here in Knoxville is a highlight of my career, although it’s a work out for every musician, singer, and dancer. I had the pleasure of watching my daughter dance to part of his musical “On The Town” in New York City last summer, and it’s an amazing memory I will keep with me. I always treasure the chance to play his music because I feel that it reaches something special in all of us. It touches the hopes, fears and loves that we all deal with. It’s a pleasure to be part of a staged production of Bernstein’s “Candide” and especially, getting to work with the Clarence Brown artists. It’s on a different stage, in a different setup, and we’ll get to create a completely unique world for this show. Come join us for some great music, in a new and exciting staging.
Bob Adamcik currently plays timpani on the Knoxville Symphony’s Moxley Carmichael Masterworks Series and is the Principal Percussionist for all other services. He has been a featured soloist with the symphony on marimba and xylophone, played with the Dallas and Ft. Worth symphonies. He has recorded with the Dallas Wind Symphony. After growing up in San Antonio, Bob graduated from the University of North Texas, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a Master’s Degree in Percussion Performance. He has taught at the University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State and has presented master classes at UT, Middle Tennessee, East Tennessee State and North Carolina School for the Arts. He has also performed in music festivals from Montana to Maine.