Sunday, February 20, 2005

Lefse 'n' Lutefisk

Well, it was exhausting to get there; the blizzard-weary streets delayed my car by 40 minutes, but when I got to the airport I discovered that my plane had left, for once, PUNCTUALLY on time -- and I MISSED IT!! The Northwest folks had to reroute me through Detroit... I don't know about this gigs-in-January business.

But what an amazing week I wound up having. After two student orchestras in a row, I was STUNNED to hear the Minnesota Orchestra. They're one of the great ensembles, no question. The Albany kids had four rehearsals; the Charlottesvile High School musicians rehearsed for six weeks. In less than an hour and a half, the Minnesota Orchestra had rehearsed all the music for the concert, and it sounded great -- even the Jeremiah excerpt, which is so difficult that both student orchestras had cut it from their programs. And Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis is one of the most resonant spaces I've ever heard -- a study in contrast with Avery Fisher Hall, which was designed by the same architect! Not only did this architect favor the Minneapolis hall with good acoustics; he also gave them these cool gigantic boxlikethings emerging from the back wall of the stage -- like sugar cubes on steroids.

The conductor, Mischa Santora, a distractingly good-looking young Swiss guy by way of Hungarian parents, ran an efficient rehearsal and drew a gorgeous sound out of the musicians. Like Helen Cha-Pyo, he's worth keeping an eye on.

We played six concerts over the course of the week. The first four, two on Wednesday morning and two on Thursday morning, were for school groups. They have a fantastic committee there that raises money for buses to bring the school groups to concerts several times a year. They filled that enormous hall to the rafters, four times! The students were lively, attentive, polite and engaged: model citizens. And when I asked them to yell "MAMBO!", I never heard such a roar. Some of the violinists were covering their ears. The hall acoustics helped, I think, to make the sound absolutely enormous.

After one of the concerts, there was a reception for the committee that bused in the students. I told them they were doing the Lord's work. One of the ladies on the committee told me that when she was 12, she was a huge Bernstein fan. She said she'd recently discovered, in her attic, a drawing she'd made at that age, of ladies in fancy outfits -- the sorts of drawings 12-year-old girls love to make. At the top of the drawing she'd written: "Spring Wardrobe for Mrs. Bernstein." I was enchanted!

Toward the end of my script, I talk about how connected all world beats are; all complex rhythms can be broken down into 2- and 3-beat bundles: call them hot dogs and hamburgers -- or sushi and sashimi, or mangos and platanos... and a violinist in the orchestra, David Wright, offered the addition of "lefse and lutefisk," some Minnesota specialities of questionable deliciousness. I got a big laugh every time I said it. I plan to send Mr. Wright a "royalty" check of 5 bucks.

The sound guys supplied me with one of those modern, tiny wireless microphones that fit around the ear and rest against one's cheek just to the side of the mouth. Very Madonna. In order for the earpiece not to slide around, the sound guy has to tape down the wire that leads down to the battery pack. The most secure place for the tape is at the back of the neck, that very vulnerable area where the hairline ends. Inevitably a few hairs get stuck under the tape and it's not fun pulling the tape off after the concert. Before the third concert, the sound guys arrived in my dressing room to attach the microphone. "So, are you ready for your mic?" they asked cheerfully -- and then I noticed they were brandishing a giant roll of gaffer's tape and a staple gun! Funny guys.

The Minnesota Orchestra members were particularly friendly, and highly engaged in the concert. They really loved playing it -- even six times. I was very touched by their involvement. So many of them came up to tell of their Bernstein-related experiences. One violinist told me that she'd been playing in the St. Luke's Orchestra when Michael Barrett and I did "Bernstein Beat" at Carnegie Hall two years ago. She said she'd been terribly distracted during the concert, because all she could think about was her audition the very next day -- for the Minnesota Orchestra.

Ch'ville and Albany


Ten minutes from landing at La Guardia. The engines are noisy on this commuter prop jet, but it was a fine sunset ride. I closed my eyes and thought about the weekend in Charlottesville, and the adventures to come, and a spontaneous little smile came over my face. First really good feeling I've had in weeks. I'm still not all the way better from the holiday-stress flu, and then at the after-party last night, I found myself wheezing uncomfortably and thought to inquire of the hostess whether she had a cat, and she sure did. That did set me back somewhat; I'm definitely fighting bronchitis now.

But my energy is getting better, in painstakingly small increments. I had to summon up massive quantities of inner reserves to do the Charlottesville weekend. Getting down there was a huge pain in the butt because of very nasty weather. After several hours at the airport and a postponed-then-cancelled flight, I wound up flying to D.C. on the shuttle, renting a car and driving to Ch'ville in rush hour traffic for three hours. I left my house at 10 a.m.; I got there at 6.

But such a reward awaitied me: Craig Barton's RIBS. And corn bread, and collards, and grilled asparagus. It was sublime, and the Bartons were all around me, plus Laura Thomas, the vivacious, indomitable conductor of the Charlottesville High School Orchestra, plus the Bartons' hilarious and very endearing friends Bruce and Roberta. We ate ourselves silly, then played 5-way scrabble while telling dirty jokes. Now THAT'S how to welcome an artist to your town.

I could have stayed with the Bartons, I suppose, but I got to have a room at the Omni. That was KEY. I needed down-time whenever I could catch it.

Saturday was intense: 10 a.m. rehearsal, 2 pm concert, 7 p.m. concert. It all went terrifically well. The high school orchestra had rehearsed fror six weeks, and with the help of some ringers in the winds, brass and percussion, they sounded FABULOUS. I couldn't get over those kids, hurling themselves into all that tricky LB music. I had to fight back tears several times: so moving. Daddy would have loved the whole thing. And there was 15-year-old Juliana Barton in the string section!! My little Juliana -- in the same gig with me!! Amazing. Her mom, Marty, had organized the entire thing: galvanized the town, got interviews lined up, filled the 1200-seat auditorium twice. She's a "macher," all right, and a wonderful friend. Best fee I never took.


Stuck in the train station in Albany a week later, waiting for a train, ANY train, to NYC. Everything's still messed up from last night's giant blizzard. Up here it was a mere 8" or so -- peanuts in these parts -- but along the coast, they got hammered, and I'm sorry to have missed the fun in the city with the kids; I LOVE a good snowstorm... and I'm even sorrier to be stuck indefinitely in this train station. I got a coffee and a bran muffin -- the muffin was days-old sawdust, and the coffee was lukewarm dregs. I made a nuisance of myself and asked for a new cup of fresher, hotter coffee -- which I promptly spilled all over the floor. Are we having fun in the Albany Depot yet??

On the bright side, my concert wasn't cancelled, YAY!!

The blizzard chased my train upstate on Saturday morning. The sky was heavily white when I went into the Egg for rehearsal, but it still wasn't snowing. The Empire State Youth Orchestra ( two youth orchestras in a row: gee!) was wonderful. I LOVE when it's kids.The conductor, Helen Cha-Pyo, was a revelation. She was great in the rehearsal. At one point she gave the zenlike instruction, "Play music in the rests!" She was funny and lively and pretty, and drew a terrific performance out of the kids. While rehearsing the Prologue from "West Side Story," I watched as the percussion player put the "Officer Krupke" police whistle in his mouth, took a deep breath prefatory to blowing mightily -- and at the crucial moment, spat the whistle right out of his mouth. There was a yawning hole of silence where an ear-piercing screech was supposed to be! Everyone was convulsed. (At the performance the next day, the percussion player kept his fingers fervently wrapped around his whistle.)

By the end of rehearsal a couple of hours later, the snow was coming down hard. They ended the rehearsal a little early so the kids could get home before the roads got really bad. They cancelled that night's screening of "West Side Story," at which I was to make some opening remarks. Board members were offering to take orchestra members in for the night if they lived too far away to get home safely. Everyone was very nervous; it would be heartbreaking if the concert had to be cancelled because of the snowstorm!

Because of the screening cancellation, I had a LOT of down time in my hotel room. For a little variety, I went down to the hotel restaurant to have dinner, but it was closed (blizzard? wedding?), and the bar & grill in the lobby was an unspeakably grim and desolate sports bar. So back up I went, ordered room service chicken marsala (hey, not too bad), and watched "Garden State" on TV. Good movie, with terrific music. And the snow kept coming down outside.

But by 10 the next morning, the sun was gleaming through the cloud cover, and by 11 the sky was well along toward clearing. By 3 p.m. those plucky Albanians had dug themselves out of their houses and filled the Egg to about 75% capacity, which under the circumstances was pretty fantastic. When we first came onstage and bowed, Helen Cha-Pyo surprised me by suddenly addressing the audience: "You must all wait a moment. I have to go back. Somewhere between the stage entrance and the podium, I seem to have lost my baton!" She'd tucked it under her arm to applaud the orchestra as we entered, and it had slipped out; she found it under the last row of violins. Funny beginning.

The crowd really seemed to enjoy itself. The kids who participated onstage were wonderful, as they always are -- and there was a tiny pipsqueak of a girl who stole the show, as pipsqueaks always do. We had a pipsqueak show-stealer in Ch'ville too, come to think of it.

Afterwards I signed programs in the strange rounded lobby of "The Egg," surely the most interestingly shaped performing arts center in America. It really is like an egg on a stick. You go up the stick in an elevator, and there are two auditoriums contained within the egg. All the walls are curved. It looks like a big 1960's spaceship. I thought it was cool -- in spite of the rather dry acoustics.

When I get back to NYC, I'll have just enough time to greet the kids, put them to bed, get them off to school in the morning, repack and take a car to Newark airport to catch the plane to Minneapolis. OY.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Hah hah the moon

I used to play this game with my "Bernstein Beat" gigs, which I can hardly play any more: I'd pretend I was in one of those old movies with the montage sequence, as the trumpet player/vaudeville troupe/opera star travels across the States, and the names of the towns are superimposed, one after the other, on top of the wheels of the railroad train steaming along full-tilt... San Francisco... Washington D.C. ... San Antonio ... chugga chugga chugga ... Buffalo ... Denver... but by now I get confused. It's just been too many "Bernstein Beats!" I've frozen the montage sequence cursor.

So I will roll back only as far as Little Rock, last October. In addition to "Beat," 4 singers and I had gone down there together to premiere another concert Michael Barrett and I had come up with: "Bernstein on Broadway," an evening of songs and orchestra excerpts from the various shows. It worked nicely to have the two concerts on the same weekend, as there was a lot of repeat material in the orchestral sections (On the Town, West Side Story), which made for less rehearsal.

Thurs Oct 7: It's POURING here in Li'l Rock. Kind of disappointing... Lizzie [the mezzo] and I had planned to gete pedicures at the mall!

My Arkansas Moment #1: The scruffy, tattooed stage manager, who stank of chewing tobacco, was checking my sound at the rehearsal. "Hah hah," he said. What? What was so funny? "Hah hah," he said again. Oh: HOW HIGH did I want the microphone stand to be positioned.

Sat Oct 9: The show last night went just great: if only more people had been there. Between the weather and the Presidential debate and some baseball playoff, well... it was a sparse and somewhat comatose crowd.

Arkansas Moment #2: After the Saturday night concert (which went even better but was still woefully underattended), there was a small get-together for a few orchestra supporters and the artists over at the bar of our hotel. One lady was telling me how excited they all were about the big gala they were planning for the following month. "And we're gonna have a salad auction!" she said. "Really?" I said, very interested. "You auction off salad?" "No, no -- a SAH-LENT auction!"

Sun Oct 10: "LB Beat" was not fun. I felt like I was working very hard in that cavernous auditorium, and my mic wire kept getting caught around my knee every time I sat down duting the musical interludes. I didn't like the way the clunky music stand they gave me obstructed the sight lines between me and parts of the audience up front. I kept worrying about it, but the stand was marked for lighting and the wire to its lamp (which is what made it clunky) was taped to the floor.

But things really fell apart toward the end. The conductor panicked; we were running too long. One SECOND over 50 minutes, and the whole orchestra tumbles into overtime. He bailed out of the Mambo before the Cha-cha. After "Cool," he told me to wrap it up quick, so I left out the whole end of the script and just did the last paragraph so there'd be time for "America." We ended two minutes before the orchestra turned into a pumpkin. I must have given everyone FITS.

Anyway I left Li'l Rock with the feeling that everyone had had quite enough of Bernstein, thank you very much. What they really wanted to think about was the opening of the Clinton Library -- the very next week.

Sun Oct 17 -- Today's concert was a study in contrast with a week ago. The Milwaukee Symphony was alert, engaged and cheerful; the Li'l Rockers seemed rather a dour bunch by comparison. The hall was bright and spiffy. My dressing room had its own bathroom. The backstage area was well-lit and pleasant. (Not like the dank, gray caverns underneath the stage in Li'l Rock. But that's the trade-off in those gigantic old-time halls.) Biggest contrast of all: the stage manager. As opposed to my "hah hah" redneck feller, she was an attractive, lean woman with a bright smile and an impeccable way of speaking. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in the Deep South any more.

Before the concert there was a fantastic bunch of activities for the kids out in the foyer. A guy was teaching conducting -- with brightly colored chiffon scarves instead of batons -- and there was a long table for drawing, another table with books for sale about music and dance, and best of all, some kids doing dancing demos: cha-cha, ballroom and salsa. They were enchanting, with their flashy costumes and perfect technique. They were really good, especially the boys. Where did they find them?! The younger one wore a spangled bolero jacket over a bare chest. The other boy -- neither of them could have been more than 10 or 11 -- was the hip-shakinest salsa dancer. After the concert, the salsa boy came up for an autograph. He was wearing a yarmulke. Gosh!!

In order to avoid the timing disaster of last week, we cut "Jeremiah" AND "Easily Assimilated." I like the concert at that length. It just FLIES.

The audience seemed to love it. Their "MAMBO!" was deafening.The musicians behind me were laughing. A lot of them came up to me with stories of LB, who conducted the Milwaukee Symphony in the late 80's -- must have been one of his last tours.

I HATE the news media. I got a big dose of CNN and MSNBC on these two weekends. The whole PABLUM of it... and the cookie cutter announcers with their careful hair and canned banter -- ugh. It's awfully hard to find the real meaning of what's going on amid all the claptrap. That's why Jon Stewart is so refreshing; he skewers the claptrap and reveals what's underneath. I want HIM for President.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Hello one and all!

Jamie Bernstein here, and if you come back again, you'll find descriptions of my many travels with "The Bernstein Beat" -- the concert for kids and families that I invented with my friend and colleague Michael Barrett. This concert is modelled after my dad's own Young People's Concerts, which were broadcast on TV for decades and set the gold standard for music education in this country -- and maybe even everywhere.

Over several decades, Leonard Bernstein covered myriad topics and composers in his concerts -- talking in his lively, personable way; going to the piano to make occasional illustrations; and conducting the New York Philharmonic in the various works under examination. But, in a rare burst of modesty, Bernstein neglected to focus on one particular composer: himself. That's where Michael and I come in.

In 1997, we began work on "The Bernstein Beat," a family concert that would introduce a new generation kids to the music of Leonard Bernstein. We decided to explore the topic of rhythm -- which automatically steered us to all the jumpingest, most kid-friendly Bernstein music, including excerpts from "On the Town," "MASS," "Fancy Free," "Candide" -- and of course, "West Side Story." Neither Mike nor I had ever written such a concert before, but we just had a feeling we'd know what to do. Mike, who was my dad's assistant conductor for several years, would be the musical expert, and I'd be the writer. He'd conduct, and I'd narrate.

It was a whole lot harder than we expected! It took us nearly two years to get our concert ready for its first performance, in April of 1998, in Salt Lake City with the Utah Symphony. We were in awe, thinking about how my dad could crank out half a dozen YPC's a YEAR, all written in longhand on yellow legal pads. And he did EVERYTHING: the writing, the narrating, the conducting.

Although well received, "The Bernstein Beat" was, we realized, a bit long and maybe still a tad earnest. It even had an intermission: way too demanding for little kids! But we adapted, refined, relaxed. Now our concert clocks in at just under an hour, and there's an even shorter version for school groups. "The Bernstein Beat" is informal and amusing and goes like the wind. We love doing it, and the kids, parents and teachers have a blast.

Two years ago, Mike and I finally hit the big time: we brought "The Bernstein Beat" to Carnegie Hall. A woman from ICM, Pat Winter, attended that concert and decided to take on the concert and me as clients. Since then, "the Beat" has gone all over the place! And that's what this blog's all about.

Since Salt Lake City, "The Beat" has been literally all over the world: from Beijing to Havana; from Sapporo to Washington D.C. to Miami, to name just a few. And many more concerts to come! It's not always Michael conducting, and it's not always me narrating. But we do it as often as we can, because it's so much fun. And that's what we most hope to convey to our audiences: the FUN of music -- which was what Leonard Bernstein excelled at doing.

It's a noble and happy task. And I'll keep you posted! So long for now...