Leonard Bernstein & NYFOS: "I think he'd be pretty proud of it."Interview
“He’s sort of our patron saint,” says Michael Barrett, pianist, conductor, and Associate Artistic Director of the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), of Leonard Bernstein. “His music really lines up sympathetically with our mission, and what we do.”
NYFOS is entering its 30th season, and like many American organizations, its season line-up is paying homage to Bernstein in the 100th year of his birth. On November 7 at Merkin Concert Hall, they’ll present a programme titled Take Care of This House: A Bernstein Celebration, which includes Bernstein’s rarely performed Songfest. “I think that’s going to be exciting because it’s not played very much,” says Barrett.
He and NYFOS Artistic Director Steven Blier are both of the opinion that Songfest - made up of 12 songs by American poets like Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allan Poe - is one of Bernstein’s “great, great pieces.” Scored for orchestra and six singers, NYFOS will present an arrangement by “our friend John Musto” that condenses the orchestration into two pianos - played by Barrett and Blier - and percussion. Even at a smaller scale, Bernstein’s writing is still guaranteed to move listeners. “There are three sextets, at the beginning, middle, and end, and that is a thrilling sound,” Barrett insists.
Songfest also marks the beginning of Barrett’s significant professional relationship with Bernstein, which began over 30 years ago as one of Bernstein’s conducting students. “[Songfest] is the first piece that I ever assisted Bernstein on, so I have a deep personal connection to it,” says Barrett. “It’s a piece I really absorbed.”
Soon after his work on Songfest, Barrett became an assistant conductor for Bernstein on many major projects. “It was really the best training possible,” he says, to work with the likes of the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Vienna State Opera. Barrett also helped Bernstein in his composing work, copying out music for him and acting as a second set of ears for his current projects. “He’d tell me to come over: ‘I’ve just written something, I want to hear what it sounds like, get over here.’”
“He really taught me what it meant to be an artist,” Barrett says. “This sort of uncompromising view to always make a piece of music sound better, not giving up, not cutting corners, doing whatever you have to do. It was an amazing experience.”
“I think he’d be pretty proud of it,” Barrett imagines of Bernstein’s reaction to NYFOS’ entering its 30th season of thematic vocal programming in New York’s large and small performance venues. Barrett adds in another surprising anecdote: “In fact, he was our founding president.”
When NYFOS had just begun, Barrett approached Bernstein’s lawyer for help in getting the organization incorporated; he agreed to draw up the papers pro-bono. “We were in Tel-Aviv, and [Bernstein’s] lawyer flew in for some reason,” Barrett remembers, “and then he produced the letters of incorporation. He said, ‘these are ready, and you will be official as soon as this gets signed.’”
“He said, ‘now, you need witnesses, and you need a president.’ And I looked at Lenny, and said, ‘you wanna be our president?’” Bernstein agreed to on-paper presidential duties, and it was a more-than-symbolic beginning of the close relationship between the composer-conductor and NYFOS. “We were off and running and we didn’t bother him too much, though we certainly did play his music.”
“When you look at his entire output, it’s almost all vocal music,” Barrett says of Bernstein’s clear focus in his compositions. And amid the work for voice - which included opera, musicals, and choral music - he wrote over 250 songs. “He was essentially a song composer.” For a figure like Barrett and a now well-established organization like NYFOS, the influence of Bernstein is indeed special.
“There’s just so much there for us.”
NYFOS returns to Merkin Hall on November 7, 2017, and their season continues through the spring of 2018. For full details and ticket information, click here.