Lenny Lives!

The Tucson Symphony devotes February to the Bernstein legacy.

Without Leonard Bernstein, there'd be no George Hanson. It's not that Bernstein taught Hanson, the Tucson Symphony's music director, everything he knows, or even that Bernstein opened a lot of doors for Hanson when he assisted Bernstein in the 1980s.

But through his tremendous musical versatility, irrepressible personality and knack for self-promotion, Bernstein made it possible for Americans to break into the conducting biz.

Until Bernstein became music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, Americans weren't taken seriously on the podium. American orchestras large and small tended to be led by men whose primary qualification was a quaint foreign accent. Bernstein broke that barrier, and today, Americans head three of this country's most significant orchestras--New York, Boston and San Francisco--and dominate the lower tiers; they're also successful in Europe, thanks to the trail Bernstein blazed through London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna.

So, in a certain way, George Hanson--like other American conductors today--owes his career to Bernstein. By way of thanks, Hanson is celebrating what would have been Bernstein's 85th birthday (he died in 1990) with a five-event festival devoted to Bernstein's work.

Besides being one of the three most famous conductors of the 20th century (along with Toscanini and Karajan), Bernstein was a genre-busting composer. He wrote a string of Broadway musicals, the most popular being West Side Story, as well as several classical works, some "straight" and some fraught with the rhythms of jazz and Tin Pan Alley.

Before getting into the details of the TSO's Bernstein Festival, let's see to what extent Hanson might be considered Tucson's Bernstein. (By the way, Bernstein never conducted the Tucson Symphony, although he did conduct the Israel Philharmonic here during a 1951 tour, whereupon somebody offered to give him a home in the Catalinas if he would agree to conduct "all the orchestras in Arizona." Bernstein declined.)

So, let's see:

· Bernstein was a conductor-pianist who really wanted to be remembered as a composer. Hanson is a conductor who used to play the piano a lot more than he does now, but as far as anybody around here knows, he's not a composer.

In past seasons, Hanson has led the Tucson Symphony in Bernstein's ballet Fancy Free and his Serenade; this month, he's focusing largely on Bernstein's theater and other vocal music. The festival opens Feb. 6, 7 and 9 with concert performances of the wonderful Broadway musical-cum-operetta Candide. Feb. 14-16, it's a pops program with excerpts from such shows as West Side Story, On the Town and Trouble in Tahiti, the last of which was later folded into Bernstein's one grand opera, A Quiet Place. Feb. 21-23 will bring a chamber-orchestra program consisting of Bernstein's serious Halil for flute and orchestra, and Arias and Barcarolles (one of his last works, a song cycle), as well as Music for the Theatre by Aaron Copland, one of several American composers Bernstein championed throughout his career.

· Bernstein was noted for intense, exuberant, near-hysterical interpretations that served Mahler and Tchaikovsky especially well, and even worked with composers as diverse as Haydn, Schumann, Sibelius and anyone American. Hanson's performances usually have plenty of vitality, but nobody could call them manic depressive.

Still, Bernstein's diverse musical interests have rubbed off on Hanson, or at least parallel Hanson's own proclivities.

"I always sensed that perhaps there was some disappointment on Bernstein's part that he maybe wasn't fully accepted in both the 'legit' world and likewise in the jazz world," says Hanson. "There's a certain amount of doubt cast on anyone who has success in both areas; people doubt that someone can swing and still know how Mahler goes. That's probably the thing that has also defined my work as a musician. I have an absolute conviction how I want Mahler to sound, from my studies and my years in Vienna, and yet I grew up with (the music of) Gershwin and I can turn around the next night and do An American in Paris and also feel very comfortable with the style."

Hanson himself, it should be noted, spent his teens in a hometown rock band.

· Bernstein flailed around on the podium, in what his detractors called "shameless histrionics" and his friends called "the Lenny dance." Hanson is capable of the occasional sweeping gesture, but with his German-style baton technique (he conducts ahead of the beat, and the bottom of his beat is vague), he's in no danger of hurting himself or the first-stand string players. (Hanson has suffered arm and shoulder strain in the past, so he probably has to be careful.)

"The primary thing was (Bernstein's) total devotion to the composer of whatever music he was conducting, and his total disregard for any so-called rules of conducting, things like 'Don't bend your knees, stand up straight,'" says Hanson. "All he was interested in was communicating the music to the orchestra, and that was a very powerful thing. The first time he taught me anything, I was conducting Brahms' second symphony, and he walked into the master class while I was conducting and said, 'That's wonderful what you're doing, George, but give me the baton.' And he took it and didn't say a word but everything changed in the sound of the orchestra immediately. When he stopped, people caught their breath, and he handed me the baton and said, 'Now you do that.'"

· Bernstein loved to talk to the public about music, especially on TV; he also narrated his own children's concerts, instead of fobbing them off onto some lowly assistant. Hanson, like his Tucson predecessors Bob Bernhardt and Bill McGlaughlin, is a master of the pre-concert chat. Part of Bernstein's legacy is that American conductors are expected to establish a verbal rapport with the audience, not just play music.

Beyond that, Hanson is including a Bernstein-style "Young People's Concert" in the festival. Over the course of 15 years, Bernstein concocted and hosted more than 50 thematic concerts especially for kids, starting with "What Does Music Mean?" and then going off in all directions.

"We'll be borrowing some of his repertoire, but mostly we're just borrowing his concept, modeling it after 'What Makes Music American?'" says Hanson. "We considered lifting the original text directly, but we decided that what might have related to kids in the early '60s didn't quite seem as appealing anymore. So we'll update it considerably."

Besides all this, Hanson will give a Feb. 11 talk called "George Remembers Lenny."

"I met Bernstein on my 24th birthday, Jan. 24, 1982," Hanson recalls. "He was visiting Indiana University, where I was a student. He was looking for an excuse to withdraw from the world for six or eight weeks and make some progress on the opera he was writing, A Quiet Place. So he came to arguably the greatest opera school in the world, and after he completed a scene he could expect to have the music copied, couriered over to the music department, and hear it sung the next day at a very professional level. For a composer to get that sort of instantaneous feedback is enormously beneficial.

"So during that six weeks I got to work with him quite a bit. The following summer I went with him to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's summer institute, and in 1983 I worked with him at Tanglewood--I shared the stage with him there--and then I did small projects off and on until I assisted him in Vienna in 1986 for the world premiere of the final version of A Quiet Place. Then I worked with him on some smaller projects, and it was basically personal contacts in the last couple of years of his life."

You can find out more about that at "George Remembers Lenny."

"I'll play a bit at the piano, and spend most of the time talking about what sort of impact Leonard Bernstein had on me and on American musicians in general," Hanson says of the program. "I'll recall some anecdotes, at least most of which will be appropriate family fare."

In other words, it should be something like seeing Bernstein himself entertain at a party, except that Hanson is not scheduled to indulge in any of Bernstein's other favorite pastimes, like playing anagrams, smoking and drinking heavily, and having sex with handsome young men.

There are limits, after all, to a great artist's influence.

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