Leonard Bernstein was truly a renaissance man for the 20th century, bridging the worlds of popular and classical music, honing a reputation as a composer, conductor, educator and musical ambassador.
The Tucson-based Chamber Music PLUS will pay tribute to Bernstein's multifaceted life as an artist with a unique new music-theater piece, To Lenny, With Love, the world premiere of which that group is presenting this weekend in Scottsdale and Tucson.
The program is "a kind of fantasy that takes into account the many different aspects of Bernstein's life, through the use of music and eight vignettes based on characters from his life," says playwright Harry Clark, who wrote the text of To Lenny, With Love.
Bernstein, who died in 1990 at age 72, wrote three symphonies, composed a movie score (for the pivotal On the Waterfront) and music for ballet and musical theater (including the immortal West Side Story), enjoyed an active career as a conductor, most notably for the New York and Vienna Philharmonics. He was known especially for his work interpreting the music of Gustav Mahler and Aaron Copland.
Chamber Music PLUS—which is led by Clark (who is also a cellist) and pianist Sanda Schuldmann—is a nationally renowned arts organization that creates and presents original works melding multiple disciplines, such as theater, classical music and visual art. Known for its creative and artistically adventuresome programming, Chamber Music PLUS has staged more than 30 original works.
To Lenny, With Love has been directed by Troy Hollar, who has directed more than 60 productions in New York in the last decade. The program comprises eight vignettes, with musical interludes. Los Angeles-based actor Bob Clendenin will portray seven different individuals from Bernstein's life.
Clendenin will play Bernstein's father, Sam; his brother, Burton; a composer colleague, David Diamond; a young conducting student at Juilliard; a violist in the Vienna Philharmonic; one of his teachers, Phillip Marsan; and the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, whom Bernstein greatly admired.
"It's a real challenge, artistically and physically, for Bob to inhabit these seven characters, quickly changing from one to another. But by this time, he has it down so well, it also should be a lot of fun for him," Clark says.
Clark didn't consider including Bernstein as a character because people already are so familiar with him as a public figure, a portrayal of him would run the risk of drifting into the realm of caricature, he says.
Each of the characters is intended to provide insight into the different aspects of Bernstein's life, to show a well-rounded view of him as an artist from different perspectives.
Says Clark, "I wanted to cover his youth, I wanted to cover his family. I wanted to cover him as an educator and teacher, as a conductor through the eyes of a young violist in the orchestra and as a composer from the point of view of one of his peers.
"The one thing I didn't exactly say in so many words is that he tended to be a guy who worked best in collaboration, which is why his theater work was so important. He really enjoyed working with people, whether it was writers or choreographers or other musicians. It was much harder for him when he had to write a symphony. He didn't have that kind of psyche that was necessary for that, to sit for hours on end."
He adds that some of the vignettes have direct musical references; some do not. In addition to using snippets of recordings from Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 ("The Age of Anxiety") and Mahler's Fifth Symphony, the show includes live performances by some of Tucson's premier musicians.
Pianist Daniel "Sly" Slipetsky, bassist Scott Black and drummer Pete Swan will perform, as will vocalist Katherine Byrnes, with whom some Tucson audiences will be familiar for her own jazz gigs, work at the Gaslight Theatre and appearances with Sergio Mendoza y La Orkesta.
"Some of the music I chose is very well-known stuff, like from West Side Story, Mass, a couple of songs from Peter Pan, but I also chose a few lesser known pieces, you know, small vignette pieces that most audiences never get to hear," Clark says.
"Another of the pieces of music in it is really great fun. For Bernstein's 70th birthday, Stephen Sondheim took a Kurt Weill work titled 'Saga of Jenny,' and rewrote it to become 'Saga of Lenny.' It's almost a cabaret song, and I think including it speaks to the multitude of musical styles that Bernstein attempted or became involved in."