August 25, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, and a huge wave of Bernstein-related performances and events has been scheduled across the world this year. At the NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) conference in June, I had the opportunity to meet Jamie Bernstein, his daughter, and play some tunes with singers in front of a conference audience. The Bernstein centennial also inspired some publishing, and Selected Anniversaries was one of the results. I had yet to really delve into these pieces, so here’s my reaction to reading and playing through the book.
Looking at the titles of the Anniversaries on the contents page, it was fascinating to see a list of Bernstein’s friends, mentors, and collaborators. Notable musicians stood out (Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, Stephen Sondheim), but other figures were unfamiliar to me. In the Historical and Pedagogical Commentary section of the book, I found a nice concise summary of each person’s connection to Bernstein. Some of the unfamiliar names were musicians too (jazz pianists, composition students) and others were Bernstein’s assistants or close friends.
After playing through the music, I came away with a few thoughts. First, some pieces were more enigmatic and ambiguous than I was expecting. In these cases I figured Bernstein was communicating something quite personal that only the dedicatee would get. My second thought about the music: some of the slower pieces really let Bernstein’s melodic gift shine. For Susannah Kyle is incredibly tender, and For Stephen Sondheim has a nice contour and major/minor play. For Helen Coates (his piano teacher) alternates melancholy with a serene G Major melody.
The two most fun pieces in the set are For William Schuman, a sort of perpetual-motion etude with great rhythmic development, and For Johnny Mehegan, full of syncopated accents that recall West Side Story.
I like the overall concept of this book. Since the pieces are fairly short and approachable for students, a pedagogical approach makes sense. I’m always in favor of twentieth-century music getting more exposure, and students’ encounters with these Bernstein miniatures may spark an interest in other American composers. I’ve met Michael Mizrahi, the editor, and his enthusiasm and clear communication emanates from both the written segments and his supplemental lesson videos. This is just a really fun, stimulating package that would be notable even outside of the Bernstein-centric 2018 events.
Click here to see the Hal Leonard store page for this book.