Leonard Bernstein, An American Life – Narrated by Susan Sarandon; produced by Steve Rowland; written by Larry Abrams (11 hour radio documentary on 11 CDs)

by | Dec 20, 2006 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Leonard Bernstein, An American Life – Narrated by Susan Sarandon; produced by Steve Rowland; written by Larry Abrams (11 hour radio documentary on 11 CDs) Steve Rowland/CultureWorks, Ltd. *****:

This superb documentary has aired on many public radio stations thruout the U.S. since it became available last year. It is an audio biography of one of the most important musical figures in America, right up there with Gershwin and Ellington. The production uses the medium of radio in a very intelligent way, offering a deep understanding of the man in quite a different way from any printed book. The remarkable range of talents possessed by Bernstein meant that he was often going many different directions at once. He was skilled as a composer, songwriter, conductor, pianist, author, teacher and mass communicator.

Steve Rowland, who recorded all the interviews and edited and mixed the production, went thru a huge archive of material to create the documentary. It included over 15,000 letters written to and from  Bernstein. Among the writers are Ted Kennedy, Andre Previn, Aaron Copland and Miles Davis.  The interview material is priceless, with such voices as Mstislav Rostropovich, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Marin Alsop, Stephen Sondheim, Bobby McFerrin, John Adams, John Corigliano, as well as some of Bernstein’s children.

Excerpts from many of Bernstein’s compositions are of course included.  One of the overriding concerns of the documentary is the lack of acceptance of his compositions vs. his conducting and other activities. Bernstein wanted desperately to have his music appreciated and later in life he also wished he had written more, but found it increasingly difficult to come up with the creative ideas that flowed so easily before. West Side Story seems to be his major hit, but others wax poetically about some of his best symphonic works such as the Serenade for Violin and Orchestra. During most of his life Bernstein was also up against the accepted international serial compositional technique, which he opposed – and in his mass communicator role beautifully expressed exactly why he did. He also wanted desperately to be loved by everybody and to have everybody love him.  Bernstein loved to hug and kiss everyone around him. Copland once called him “the kissing bandit.”

The information about Bernstein’s life is not all sugarcoated. Trenchant criticism of his music, his addictions, his poor decisions, his bisexuality, are offered by some of the speakers. Among the most touching moments are some of the actual recordings of his speaking and conducting at events such as the memorial service for RFK and the Beethoven Ninth concert at the Berlin Wall. Susan Sarandon is a fine narrator, and among the readers of the letters are Jamie Bernstein and Alec Baldwin.  Any music lover with the slightest interest in American music should hear this magnificent and moving documentary.

List of hour headings: Bernstein: The Early Years; Twelve Gates to the City; New York, New York; Tonight; A New Frontier: The Philharmonic Years; Bernstein: The Conductor Parts 1 & 2; Crossroads; Bernstein: The Composer Parts 1 & 2; A Candle Burned at Both Ends.

 – John Sunier

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