Lenny Lights it Up

This is another real YouTube treasure.

I’m conducting this mini-masterpiece tomorrow for the first time in about 20 years, but it’s a piece you hear (or least I hear) all the time, and there are many good performances out there under Bernstein’s baton (and others). The most famous, and most often seen and heard, recording is his LSO performance from late in life. It’s surprisingly deliberate and has a stonking great mistake in the cymbal part.

This is really special. It’s fasssssssst and really virtuosic. The NY Phil could be a very sloppy orchestra in those years (I re-listened to Bernstein’s famous recording of Peter and the Wolf the other day and and was pretty shocked at just how ragged and careless it is). This is tight as a drum and thrillingly played.

And what an achievement these Young People’s Concerts were. Presented by one of the world’s greatest conductors at the peak of his considerable powers, speaking and conducting without notes or score(s) on live television. I think it’s sooooooo important we give young audiences the best of our musicianship, our preparation, our insight and our love of music. It’s so upsetting when one feels that musicians are performing in “kids concert” (ie “not as good as in a “real” concert”) mode. Bernstein sets the bar so high here.

My first experience of this piece was playing it in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) as a very young cellist. To this day, it always reminds me of my many dear friends in the orchestra and the inspirational leadership of James R. Smith, who inhabited this music with such understanding, humanity, precision and warmth.

What elevates Candide is that Bernstein finds a way to turn what could just be a virtuoso romp into a piece full of love and joy. The soaring “love” theme, such a joy to play, is what life as a musician is, or at least should be, about. Bernstein’s generosity of spirit burns off the page. Pure musical joy.


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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