In Jewish tradition the number 18 (chai) signifies life; 36 (double chai) resonates as a dual affirmation. Lenny would be smiling.
I reached Gilbert by phone during a sunny afternoon with his family on the beach in Stockholm.
Oh, you're at the beach. How wonderful.
Yeah. It's the most gorgeous day. You can't believe it.
I just encountered a reviewer who proclaimed, "No one can conduct Bernstein better than Bernstein." Soon you'll be before his orchestra in New York, playing his music. What does that feel like?
First of all, thanks for reminding me of all the challenges [laughing].
So glad to serve.
I meet a lot of young conductors who had no contact with Bernstein. They know him as a sort of mythical figure. I was really lucky to spend a certain amount of time with him when he was conducting the New York Philharmonic in his later years. When I was a conducting student at Tanglewood, he worked with our class. I had private time and lessons with him, spent time with him at Harvard, and got to see him do a lot of repertoire, including his own music.
Everybody loved his music. To see him do West Side Story was always eye-opening. Very often pieces like the Candide Overture or the West Side Story Symphonic Dances are done in a kind of glitzy, showy way with very fast tempos. With him it had real swing. Lenny took his own music as seriously as anyone I know. He played it like the great music it is.
Playing his music with the orchestra is of course a challenge, but it's also really comforting. They know his music so well, and they feel it. It's possible to ride the wave with them and participate together. It's easier to conduct Bernstein's music with the New York Philharmonic than with any other orchestra because it's their language.
We speak of the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. It may be too soon to add another, but if you were to try, would you include Bernstein?
It's difficult to say. Lenny himself talked of the difficulty he encountered being taken seriously as a composer, not to mention as a pianist. He felt that since he was so well known as a conductor, people listened with a skeptical ear to his music and piano playing. I think because he was such a great conductor: and perhaps best known for his conducting: it may have led people to put an asterisk next to his name as a composer.
The fact is, he did compose the Serenade for violin with orchestra, which I think is one of the preeminent pieces of the 20th century. He also composed West Side Story, which is not only one of the great masterpieces, but is also such a cultural landmark. I'm not even mentioning his symphonies, which I think are wonderful, and his other shows. Anybody who writes works that are so musically important deserves to be considered in the pantheon of
Music critic Jason Victor Serinus writes for Opera News, Stereophile, American Record Guide, San Francisco Magazine, and Muso.