What was Leonard Bernstein's best work, according to Leonard Bernstein?
Believe it or not, it was not "West Side Story," "Candide" or "On the Town" -- the pieces that hit biggest among audiences. Apparently the composer himself favored a piece that highlights the violin: the Serenade after Plato's "Symposium," his five-movement violin concerto, written in 1954.
This is no surprise to violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who has made the work the centerpiece of her most recent album, Serenade: The Love Album, with the London Symphony Orchestra, Keith Lockhart conducting. Meyers is known for recent recordings such as American Masters, The Bach Album and Smile; and for having the world's most valued violin in her care -- the 1741 "Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesù.
A few weeks ago she spoke with me over the phone from her Austin home about her latest project, which in addition to Bernstein's "Serenade," includes 11 love-inspired songs from the 20th century. She chose seven living composer-arrangers (like Plato's seven philosophers) to set the violin as chanteuse in those songs, which include favorites such as "Love Theme" from "Cinema Paradiso," David Rakin's "Laura," Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Summertime," "Wish Upon a Star," and Bernstein's "Somewhere."
Laurie: Is it true, that "Serenade" was Bernstein's favorite, of his own compositions?
Anne: Glenn Dicterow played it frequently with the New York Phil, and apparently Bernstein would just wave his stick and say, "This is my best f***ing work!" That Bernstein swagger, only he could pull that off!
Personally, I think it's Bernstein's best work. In my opinion, it's one of the most undervalued pieces in the repertoire. It's a piece that I've played and loved for 20 years. When I first heard the piece, I was so struck by it -- I was sitting in the car, I'd been playing in North Carolina. I heard this violinist playing the fourth movement on the radio, the "Agathon," and I thought, "What is this? I do not know this piece, this is unbelievable!" I had to just pull over and wait until the end of the piece. I think it was Sergiu Luca performing it. I was blown away, and from that moment on I knew: I must learn this piece. Now!
So I first learned it for a tour in Japan, with the American Symphony Orchestra. I've taken it on tour a lot, especially in the '90s. By now, I have played it everywhere.
The piece is such a wonderful exploration of love. The Serenade is based on Plato's Symposium, a discussion between seven philosophers at a rowdy drinking bout, in praise of Eros. It's one of the most arresting openings of a concerto, I can't think of another concerto that begins a capella. It starts this very interesting dialogue, where the violin's role is so profound. Then it gradually brings in the whole orchestra, the violin plays this high, high note (an A), and the conversation begins: What are all the dimensions of love?
Each of the five movement is a reflection of the seven philosophers that Bernstein had been so enamored with. It's just such an incredible exploration of love, how love is kind of unobtainable, how love is what we bring to it. It's kind of a reflection of our souls. I think it was very complex question for Bernstein because of his sexuality: being married to a woman but really loving men. She was such an important muse in his life, but he had such incredible guilt for being in love with men. It was such a rich time in his creative process as well, conducting the New York Philharmonic, writing West Side Story, Candide...
There's so much wisdom in his approach, so much curiosity and passion. The piece is highly melodic. It's incredibly difficult and challenging to perform, but you kind of transcend that virtuosity, and it becomes a beautiful song, a quest he was on, to wonder about love and ponder it. This concerto is so profound to me, and I've loved it for decades.
Knowing I was going to record the "Serenade," I started thinking, what can I do to push the exploration of love? So I approached seven arrangers, basing it on the seven philosophers. I approached many other people as well, like (classical radio host) Jim Svejda, who I just adore. He had a program a long time ago about how much he's in love with the theme song of "Laura," the movie.
Laurie: I wondered about that, because I have to tell you this Anne, my parents named me "Laura," and that song is the reason why. Everyone called me "Laurie," as a nickname for "Laura," and it just stuck.
Both Bernard Hermann and Alfred Newman said "no" to writing the theme song for the 1944 film, "Laura." Then they approached David Raksin. His wife had left him -- she wrote him kind of a "Dear John" letter, and he just sat at the piano the next day, and over the weekend wrote the most haunting melody that is known as "Laura." It was his big break in Hollywood. The movie is so amazing, the way they utilize that theme, over and over in snippets. And that sound, they had this glorious studio sound that I was aiming to try and capture again.
Mike Novak actually introduced me to this incredible orchestrator, arranger, conductor and composer named Brad Dechter, and he's one of the Hollywood greats. I asked him to arrange "Laura," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Summertime" and "I'll Be Seeing You." When he first gave me the Laura arrangement, he gave me a samba version! I said, "No, no, no, that's not the sound I'm looking for!"
Laurie: It's a very haunting melody.
Anne: It's haunting, and it's also very grand. This woman was really handsome lady, she was a dame, she was just a hot lady!
Laurie: It's good to know I was named after a hot lady!
Anne: She was a really sexy, beautiful lady. The story is one of obsession: where this police officer is obsessed with finding Laura. I thought, that was such an amazing dimension of love, too: obsession, and how we get to that point.
We discussed the kind of sound that I was aiming for, and he came back with this amazing arrangement of "Laura," which is exactly how I hear it.
That was just one of seven collaborations that I had going on, on this album.
Laurie: It sounds like you really had a hand in these arrangements. It's not like you just sent them off and said, "Arrange these!" You were pretty particular.
Anne: Very particular. It also blows my mind that I never met my arrangers in person, except for Steven Mercurio, whom I worked with on The Bach Album. But we did everything via Skype.
Laurie: Modern collaboration!
Anne: I loved that all the arrangers are also composers, and a lot of them are conductors as well. (They included Angela Morley, Brad Dechter, J.A.C. Redford, Steven Mercurio, Matthew Naughtin, Adam Schoenberg and Steven Schoenberg.) They were incredibly collaborative, accessible and open to working together to create this album. Actually, it was not until the very end that they even knew that they were partaking in this project. They knew it was based on the Bernstein "Serenade," but they didn't know exactly how. Putting it together was like assembling many pieces of a puzzle. Talk about thrilling: there were a couple of arrangements that we didn't even have until the week before the recording sessions in London! It was like giving birth, for sure.
Laurie: I was tickled to see the composer and arranger Matthew Naughtin, librarian for the San Francisco ballet, doing one of the arrangements. We were in the Omaha Symphony together a long time ago, and I have many of his books of quartet arrangements. It was so "him" to put the beginning of the Tchaikovsky Concerto at the beginning of Jacob Gade's Tango "Jalousie"!
Anne: He's done an arrangement for quartet, where he used the opening of the Tchaik. He sent me the arrangement in a very strange key, so I suggested, why don't we just do it in D major, just like the Tchaikovsky Concerto? Then the ending was really challenging, how to end it? We thought, how cute would it be, to start and end with the Tchaik? It worked so well, and it's such a little joke in there. It's based on one of the most popular tangos, written by a Danish composer -- so you've got the Russian, with Tchaikovsky; the Danish composer writing the Argentinian tango -- arranged by an American!
Laurie: So how exactly did this work, you came up with the list of pieces, and then you found arrangers for them?
Anne: That's right. Even deciding which arranger to ask, how to pair the right pieces with each arranger -- that was challenging, too. For example, J.A.C. Redford, who did the beautiful arrangement of "Somewhere," he's working on the Bond film now, and he's one of the top arrangers in Hollywood.
Laurie: Were any of them favorites of your parents? I understand that the "love" theme of this album is partly in honor of your parents' 50th anniversary.
Anne: Yes, some are favorites of my father, who loves classic movies, also plays clarinet. His big influence growing up was Benny Goodman, and he played at a lot of Chicago jazz clubs as a teenager. This music, from the America songbook and the jazz clubs, that's what is in his blood. He still plays today. He goes to nursing homes and plays jazz pieces, and it's amazing, the stories he tells me. People who are almost comatose will smile, or move, or try to dance because they're reminded of this music from their youth. It's an incredibly rich period in American music, the time from the '20s through the '40s. It's one that deeply resonates with him. The Gershwin, the classic film noir, "Laura," and "I'll Be Seeing You," that's also always been such an incredibly moving song to me. I thought, I want the violin to be like a chanteuse, I want to hear the violin sing. Why aren't there arrangements for violin and piano or orchestra, with these amazingly beautiful songs? So finally, I thought, I'm just going to get it done!
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