Leonard Bernstein and Louis Armstrong – music without boundaries

Michael McManus Wed 26th November 2014

Bernstein and Armstrong trampled over musical boundaries – and so should our orchestras and opera companies

Louis Armstrong (left) and Leonard Bernstein (right)

Louis Armstrong (left) and Leonard Bernstein (right)

‘There is no “serious” music or “unserious” music, just good music and bad music’. I have heard those words, or at least the sentiment, attributed both to Leonard Bernstein and also to Louis Armstrong; and certainly both men shared a genius for breaking down barriers through a combination of sheer force of personality, raw musical talent and a burning desire to educate widely, or even to evangelise, about music. Earlier this month I spent a week literally walking in the footsteps of these two musical titans, visiting Armstrong’s unassuming home in the Corona district of Queen’s, unchanged since his widow died almost 40 years ago; attending a starry concert performance of Show Boat by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center; and taking in the breathtakingly energetic, funny and also very touching new production of Lenny’s first stage musical, On the Town, currently playing at the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street. For good measure, I sat in on a rehearsal in Carnegie Hall, where the Bernstein legend was born back in 1943, featuring two extraordinary African singers, Angélique Kidjo and Vusi Mahlasela, who were preparing for a sell-out concert celebrating the life and achievements of Miriam Makeba, ‘Mama Africa’. The week was an effective exercise in shattering artificial musical boundaries. 

Although it was Lenny whose path and mine crossed for a time, I feel certain I must have been aware of Louis Armstrong first. His renditions of ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘Hello Dolly’ are somehow part of the fabric of all our existences and a guided tour of his home confirmed that the affable persona he so successfully projected on stage and screen was far from contrived. Although he was haunted by depression and, latterly, dogged by poor health, evidently ‘Satchmo’ really was an adorable man. Everyone should visit the museum at his home if they have the chance. It is inevitably a shrine of sorts, but neither pretentious nor discomfortingly reverential. Armstrong generally toured for nine months or more each year; and it was his wife who insisted it was time for the couple to have a home base, which she duly located next door to one of her friends. 

There are so many images that will abide: the gold trumpet given to him by King George V, which he gave away on a whim to a young player in need; previously unseen photos of him on tour; an extraordinary lamp stand full of rice and beans; and an unforgettable image of him laughing and joking with Miles Davis. A strong uxorial influence is evident almost everywhere. The blue, bespoke kitchen is quintessentially 1950s, yet somehow timeless. In the front room, sofas are arranged in convivial semi-circles and, to my delight, I spied a set of mounted pencil sketches whose origins were unknown to the current team at the museum: unmistakably they were of Arturo Toscanini, whom Louis Armstrong greatly admired. Prominently displayed in his wonderful private room at the front of the house, with its impressive (then) state-of-the-art stereo equipment, was a grand old set of 78s featuring Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2. Musical boundaries? Not under this roof. 

Back in the more familiar environs of Manhattan, the latest production of On the Town has arrived on the Great White Way (in the space which previously housed the ill-starred Spiderman musical) after a decent run out of town. It shows. The performers are stunningly good and completely inside the material, as singers, as dancers and also as actors. Some of the ballet sequences took my breath away. The 30-piece band - the largest currently on Broadway - had the idiom at their fingertips and the humour of writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden, which can sometimes seem a bit arch and dated, prompted genuine delight and applause throughout. A cast recording was made two days after I saw the show and I can’t wait to hear it. As always with Lenny, even in his twenties, this piece is genre-busting. It would be simpler and quicker to list what didn’t influence it than to enumerate what did. The piece was much performed not so long ago at ENO in London - with an even larger orchestra and a mixture of operatic and musical theatre performers - and its infectious energy seemingly never fails to ignite. More germanely, as I muse on ‘boundaries’, the piece worked brilliantly in both settings. 

All of which brings me to the crowning glory of this visit to my home from home: Show Boat in Avery Fisher Hall. I attended the first of five public performances, on the evening after the US mid-term elections, in which voters across the Union had heavily repudiated Barack Obama’s Democrats. It seemed almost gloomily prescient of the New York Phil to programme this piece when they did, for Obama’s ethnicity is unquestionably an issue for many millions of his fellow countrymen. The Mississippi sheriff onstage accusing the Cotton Blossom show boat of promoting miscegenation seemed less pantomime villain and all too redolent of the problems still encountered by countless African-Americans in the so-called ‘red states’ that we Brits (and New Yorkers too) rarely, if ever, visit. 

On a happier note, the performance itself was superb, judiciously complied and edited but also including some numbers that are less than well known. The contribution of the orchestra was superb: the ultimate luxury casting. I hope I don’t appear partisan in adding that the stand-out singing performance for me was that of fellow Brit Julian Ovenden, so well known now for his work with the John Wilson Orchestra. In many ways, the occasion was reminiscent of one of the popular John Wilson Proms that are now a regular feature of the BBC Proms. I was surprised to learn that the Philharmonic have participated in musical theatre productions on just 10 occasions since 1968, eight of them in the past 15 years. Judging by the quality of what I saw and heard - and the reaction of the audience - they should do it more often. Having said which, assembling this company for just five shows must have been a tremendous logistical and financial challenge.

‘It certainly set me thinking about the role (or lack of it) of London’s five symphony orchestras in the musical theatre scene in London’

It certainly set me thinking about the role (or lack of it) of London’s five symphony orchestras in the musical theatre scene in London. I remember my unconfined joy (and slight astonishment) 25 years ago when I heard Leonard Bernstein had decided to conduct the Scottish Opera edition of his Candide not in New York but at London’s Barbican, with the LSO. Both in concert and in the Abbey Road studio, the band did Lenny proud. In 1992 they repeated the trick, giving unforgettable renditions of On the Town with Michael Tilson Thomas, again in concert at the Barbican. Since then, I don’t think any of the big London orchestras has really picked up the musical theatre baton. I devoutly wish they should: it would both widen their repertoire significantly and also lend a very special depth and lustre to the music. In a sense, John Wilson is filling a vacuum (and there are always faces familiar from London’s orchestras in his band), but interest in this rich and rewarding genre would surely be enhanced if this artificial musical boundary were to be challenged, crossed and generally trampled over, on a much more frequent basis. 

Fortunately, there are those who relish the challenge. Before Show Boat, the previous expedition into musicals by the New York Phil, in March of this year, was a semi-staged Sweeney Todd, starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson. In Spring 2015 this will transfer to London’s Coliseum, inaugurating a five-year arrangement between the ENO and the new GradeLinnit Company, headed by its pair of eponymous impresario Michaels, which should see one staged musical theatre production per year at the Coliseum, supplemented by a concert performance or two. Of course, ENO itself has a track record of bringing musicals to the stage, but with mixed success: that On the Town was very good indeed, but the Candide production that followed was pretentious and turgid; and the ENO Kismet starring Michael Ball was certainly mandatory watching, but only for all connoisseurs of theatrical debacle. Everyone at the company must be hoping and praying that Mike Leigh’s take on The Pirates of Penzance next spring - which will star operatic baritone Jonathan Lemalu - will obliterate unhappy memories of Kismet once and for all.

I can immediately think of two productions that I have attended in the past six months which could be ideal for importation under the new arrangement - the excellent New York Show Boat and the radical take on West Side Story that I saw at the Komische Oper in Berlin in June - the first time I have seen the show produced without the original choreography by Jerome Robbins. It was dark and it was breathtakingly physical - capturing all the violent anger as well as beauty of the score - and I hope Michael Grade and his team can be persuaded to bring it to London as soon as possible.

When it comes to casting, a new Chandos CD starring Simon Keenlyside and Scarlett Strallen serves as a timely reminder that operatic voices have not always been regarded as being out of place in musical theatre. Indeed, as Keenlyside reminds us in his scholarly and engagingly provocative booklet note, most of the early masterpieces of the genre were written for soloists who could reach the Gods without the aid of amplification - in other words, for highly trained and skilled vocalists whose voices were every bit as powerful and nuanced as those that were found at the Met, La Scala or Covent Garden. The Keenlyside renditions of musical theatre numbers ranging from the 1930s to the 1960s won’t be to everyone’s taste - and, to my ears, it is the earlier repertoire that works best - but it’s hard to disagree with the singer’s assertion that Lenny Bernstein wasn’t wrong per se to use operatic voices in his recording of West Side Story (Tatiana Troyanos was fabulous as Anita, after all): he just picked the wrong singers, thereby convincing all too many people that the two genres must be kept separate and mutually untainted in perpetuo. In flying the flag for vocal crossover, I believe Simon Keenlyside has done more than create a vocally enticing curiosity or a curate’s egg. I hope he will help to prompt a widespread reassessment of authentic performance, focused on the 20th century, that will come to rival the magnificent gains the Hogwoods and Norringtons made for the Baroque era.

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