Productions of Candide abound in this centennial year: there will be sixty-two performances worldwide, thirty of which are in the United States. In preparation for this happy eventuality, our good and erudite friend, George Steel, wrote about Leonard Bernstein and humor in Candide, unpacking the tricks and jokes at play in the score that Stephen Sondheim once praised as “the most scintillating group of songs ever written for musical theater.”
I read Steel’s witty writing last summer and immediately knew it had to be adapted as a pre-performance talk, or as they say nowadays: “informance.” It has been my great pleasure to be delivering this lecture/performance for the past couple of months.
This is what took me to San Francisco and Phoenix in January. And it’s what took me to Palm Beach last week, where the Palm Beach Opera (PBO) is performing Candide on February 23, 24, and 25.
The PBO treats its patrons to a “Lunch and Learn” event before each production. Attendees gather at the National Croquet Center: a Fitzgerald-era gem with a dozen perfectly manicured courts and a magnificent club-house.
After lunch, I took the microphone as pianist Timothy Cheung and singers Derrek Stark, Joshua Conyers, Chelsea Bonagura, and Francesca Aguado took their places. We romped through a veritable carnival of wrong notes, musical puns, metrical misrule, incongruity, and parody of virtually every musical style known to the Western ear.
After some very appreciative applause, I took some Q and A. The first question asked my favorite memory of my father. I found it hard to answer that, so I passed the question on to Maestro David Stern (son of Isaac) who would be conducting the production and, luckily, was at the lunch.
David joined me at the front of the room and began reminiscing about his early years when, as he said, “my father was Prince of New York. He was the Prince. But Lenny was the King.”
Memories of LB
The Sterns lived on the 19th floor of the Beresford building on Central Park West. As it happened, right across the hall lived Adolph and Phyllis Green and their family. So when LB visited one family, he just had to pop across the hall and see the other one. How could he not? David remembers these cross-apartmental visits with great fondness.
He then remembered a Tanglewood summer in the mid-80’s. One day, the Sterns met up with LB for a picnic lunch.
First, LB waxed rhapsodic on the glorious pleasures of corn. (Of course, it was August. And he never tired of those pleasures.) Then he talked about the night before.
The evening before, he had performed Debussy and Sibelius with the Tanglewood Music Center orchestra (the Tanglewood Fellows) and had stayed up all night reveling with the students. This was one of the things he loved best about Tanglewood: reverting back to his student self and carousing with his “fellow” students as if it were 1943.
According to David (by way of LB), LB arrived home in one piece but was too excited to sleep. So he took out the score of Tchaikovsky’s 6th, the Pathétique, which he would be rehearsing in the morning with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The score was a palimpsest: over Koussevitzky’s original markings, LB had added his own markings over the years. But now, in his state of exuberance at 4 AM, he made believe the markings were all gone. With a baby-clean approach, he could now reimagine the piece as if for the first time.
And according to David, the rehearsal and subsequent performance of that piece was utterly thrilling and fresh. LB had washed and renewed it.
In telling this, David grew quite emotional, as did I, listening.
“The importance of the music,” said David through his tears, “music and people. Our fathers were all about that.”
About this author
Nina Bernstein Simmons is Leonard Bernstein’s youngest daughter. After working as an actress, initially at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, she turned her attention to tending her late father’s legacy. In the earliest days of the internet, she worked with the Library of Congress to make the Bernstein Archives digitally available to the public. From 2000 to 2005, Nina worked on “Leonard Bernstein: A Total Embrace,” a film about her sister, Jamie, and her remarkable journeys around the world bringing Bernstein’s music and teaching legacy to new audiences. Since 2008, Nina has been working as a food educator in underserved communities.
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Jamie, Alexander, and Nina are taking you around the globe, celebrating their father’s legacy with you and adoring fans at thousands of Bernstein Centennial events. Read more travel blogging in Bernstein Today.