Thursday, October 8, 2009

Try fitting this orchestra into the pit: Leonard Bernstein conducts his Candide Overture

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One of the greatest joys of my life was sitting in on a Master Class in Conducting with Leonard Bernstein. It took place at Tanglewood in the late 70's when I was working for the BSO and had a day off from my duties in the press office. What I remember was the excruciating attention to detail he gave each student that day, including a surprise Latino protege he brought with him from New York. Talk about a West Side Story.

With The Fantasticks opening at Barrington Stage this week, I was reminiscing about other wonderful, classic shows I have seen and Bernstein's Candide came to mind. Never achieving the immense popularity that greeted West Side Story, its overture has the distinction of being played fairly regularly in concert halls around the world.

If you give this wonderful video your close attention, you will see a somewhat pudgy Bernstein (I should talk!) giving a somewhat campy and colorful performance as he waves and waggles his baton at the London Symphony Orchestra. He hums, he swings and sways, and he even dances to his own music.

A Young Bernstein in his backstage dressing room.

I loved the Candide presented by Berkshire Theatre Festival this past summer, but how I missed the pit orchestra. When Tom Jones and I spoke earlier this week - he wrote the book and lyrics for The Fantasticks which has begun its run at Barrington Stage - we recalled the days of yore when 21 piece pit orchestras were not uncommon. In fact his 110 in the Shade had one. Jones shared lots of stories about The Fantasticks with me here in Berkshire Fine Arts.

About the same time, Frank Loesser wrote The Most Happy Fella which stunned New Yorkers with a 30 piece band which overflowed the pit and provided a sound unlike any heard before or since. And it was all without microphones and amplification. You could hear Broadway legends like Ethel Merman through two sets of closed doors, out on the street with its cacophony of sounds.

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