BERNSTEIN: West Side Story Suite.  "Lonely Town" and "New York, New York" from On the Town. "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide (all arr. by William David Brohn). Serenade after Plato's "Symposium."
Joshua Bell, violinist; Philharmonia Orch/David Zinman, cond.
SONY SK 89358 (F) (DDD) TT:  61:35
 

With a surface as slick as Häagen-Dazs sorbet on a stick, this Sony confection ushers Joshua Bell into the Yo-Yo Ma Pantheon of Classical Crossover Artists, where Pavarotti and Cecilia Bartoli anchor the Singers' Gallery (or used to). The Red Violin seems to have opened the door, even though it was a damned hard flick to find—even on premium channels, which tended to schedule showings in the early-morning or late-night hours. An occasional primetime screening invariably conflicted with something I cared more to see than a 2-hour movie about a handed-down violin—one, furthermore, that got so-so reviews (as cinema, not as a Cultural Reach). I mean, that kind of film was done to a turn decades ago in Tales of Manhattan, with an all-star cast.

This Sony-sponsored wedding of Bernstein and Bell, costumed by William David Brown and John Corigliano, with conductor David Zinman officiating, is not—repeat not—for diabetics I or II. Brown's West Side Story Suite (a fancy word for pastiche) exceeds a day's sugar limit in the first three minutes, and by the end of 19 has spooned on enough for a month. Bell is good, mind you, but the emphasis here is on carbohydrates, not fiber, if you'll allow the mixed metaphor. This is followed by 4:10 more of the same, lavished on "Lonely Town" from On the Town, followed by 5:32 of Corigliano, cookie-icing "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide (with hints of other tunes from Bernstein's best Broadway score—perhaps his finest work of any).

There is no chance to shift listening gears before a segue into Serenade (after Plato's Symposium), a five-movement suite composed in 1954 for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion. The movements are subtitled "Phaedrus: Pausanias," "Aristophanes," "Erxyimachus," "Agathon" (loveliest of the bunch, an Adagio), and "Socrates: Alcibiades." Isaac Stern introduced it in Venice, with Lenny.B. conducting the Israel Phil. Certainly it is pretty enough, albeit discursive and, in terms of title and subtitles, pretentious (a crutch, his daughter Jamie writes in Sony's slick fold-out insert).

Trouble is, there's as much Broadway as "classical" Bernstein in Serenade (anticipating West Side Story). Preceded by almost 29 minutes of caramel glaze on several Stage Door Deli takeouts, the piece ends up sounding like more of the same. This is exacerbated by a Brown-arranged coda of "New York, New York" from On the Town, almost as if to say, hey, look how Lennie borrowed from his "other self" in Serenade - Plato-Schmato, Socrates-Schmocrates, Alcibiades-Schmalzibiades.

In healthier times than now Serenade would have led off, instead of what Jamie calls "a kind of conversation between Leonard Bernstein and a few of his musical colleagues—a conversation held in Bernstein's own musical language." His Broadway language, however, was mostly scored by Sid Ramin (who turned down an invitation to do this project), and Hershy Kay in the case of Candide. Here we have too much of William David Brown, abetted by Corigliano.

Joshua Bell is a superb violinist in repertory he learned to play with Joseph Gingold at Indiana U. As a violinist and musician he is neither uncomfortable nor miscast here, but lacks the chops of Yo-Yo Ma (to Bell's long-term advantage I'd say), who has spread like a computer virus throughout music of all styles, except rap—so far. Conductor Zinman, meanwhile, does this sort of thing with panache, almost hungrily, and the Philharmonia Orchestra is elegantly responsive in a lush recording (you decide whether luscious). There are multiple photos of Bell wearing a leather jacket and jeans in tenement settings, but only one with an unforced, beguiling smile while seated on the steps of a fire escape. In the rest he seems either posed or pensive—maybe practicing a Mozart cadenza in his head while the shutter clicked, but not a lovestruck Tony/Romeo, either looking for or waiting for Maria/Juliet. I'll bet he gets a Grammy, though. And those photos could turn the disc to gold, if teen-fans can see them without buying first.

Myself, I think Bernstein needs a moratorium, both the reissue of his own discs (good, bad or indifferent indiscrimately) and records like this one of his music. If the dust is allowed to settle for a while, his enduring achievements will survive. Historically, a bottoming-out follows death, not sparing even legends in their lifetime like Toscanini, Stokowski, Furtwängler or Karajan—much less Sebastian Bach and Mozart. Beethoven seems to have been the lone exception (Wagner was and remains a parade-balloon filled with hype). But Lennie B. was no Beethoven (or even a parade-balloon). Give him a rest, ye buck-scarfing hucksters. His good music has earned it.

R.D. (July 2001)