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Critic's Notebook

Sinister snooping, symphonic scores

Leonard Bernstein and Lorin Maazel shared more than a flair with the

July 17, 2009|Mark Swed

Saturday morning a major story out of Washington had this headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Times: "Bush-era Surveillance Went Beyond Wiretaps." That evening, "West Side Story" was screened in all its widescreen glory at the Aero in Santa Monica as part of American Cinematheque's tribute to director Robert Wise. A critic's exercise is to connect the dots.

"West Side Story" opened in New York on Oct. 18, 1961, and went on to win 10 Academy Awards. In September 1962, the new home for the New York Philharmonic had its gala opening ceremonies. Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) was the first theater of the new Lincoln Center complex on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a revitalization of the nasty neighborhoods where the Anglo and Puerto Rican gangs fought it out in "West Side Story."

On the surface, this was a triumphant time for Leonard Bernstein, who was music director of the New York Philharmonic and who had written the music for the great, politically acute Broadway show. Moreover, Bernstein's friend, John F. Kennedy, was in the White House, and the mood in the country was optimistic.

In fact, quite a bit was eating away at Bernstein, and not merely that Philharmonic Hall turned out to have lousy acoustics or that Wise watered down the "West Side Story" score. Bernstein himself had been a victim of Eisenhower-era surveillance. This led to his being blacklisted by CBS and the New York Philharmonic a decade earlier. His passport was also taken away. He'd had to, if not sell his soul, at least lease it out temporarily to get his career back.

Details of the persecution of Bernstein in the first half of the '50s have come out in Barry Seldes' new book, "Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician." An inveterate lefty who supported all kinds of liberal causes and who barely escaped being called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Bernstein was only cleared of suspicion after he reluctantly signed a testimony recanting his political associations with the likes of singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson.

It was with these indignities still fresh that Bernstein wrote "West Side Story," which had its celebrated premiere on Broadway on Sept. 26, 1957. The next year he became music director of the New York Philharmonic, and one of the great eras in American music began.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a performance of Mahler's epic Eighth Symphony in Fisher Hall. Forty-seven years ago, Bernstein had led the blazing first part of this so-called "Symphony of a Thousand" at the hall's opening night. This night Lorin Maazel conducted the Eighth as his last program as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

The next night I saw the recent revival of "West Side Story" on Broadway.

Times have changed. Where Bernstein's Mahler had been effusive, Maazel's was controlled and magisterial. Meanwhile, Lincoln Center (which is undergoing renovation), the Upper West Side and the bland, musically inept new "West Side Story" all felt sanitized.

But like his Philharmonic predecessor, Maazel happens to have written a subversive piece of political musical theater. London's Royal Opera gave the premiere of his opera "1984" four years ago, and that production recently has been released on DVD.

The opera is a conscientious recounting of George Orwell's terrifying apparition of government as Big Brother, controlling thought as well as action. Maazel, who was an outspoken critic of George W. Bush's administration (as Bernstein was of the first Bush), spells out his intentions in his spoken introduction on the video.

"The world of today," Maazel says, "already shows very clear signs of the ever diminishing freedom of the individual, of the ever so gradual encroachment in the lives of all of us of Big Brotherism.

"We would like to think," he continues, "that everyone attending our opera will resolve the very next day to do whatever is necessary to prevent our world from going the same way [as in Orwell's novel]."

I'm not about to go overboard in defending Maazel's music. Still, the score is well-made, dramatically purposeful, vocally interesting and it holds my attention. The style is not new or original, but if Maazel's mission is to present political oppression as something that makes your skin crawl, he has succeeded. The production by Robert Lepage works. All the singers are superb, with Simon Keenlyside a complete knockout as Winston, Nancy Gustafson an opulently sung Julia and the soprano Diana Damrau a spectacular coloratura character actress.

So why has this opera been so thoroughly dissed and dismissed? The British press lambasted the score for being derivative, its one-size-fits-all charge for works by American music directors (Esa-Pekka Salonen's Piano Concerto was similarly accused). What seems to have really bothered the Brits, though, is that Maazel helped personally underwrite the production. This has been interpreted as a wealthy American buying Covent Garden access.

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