Brandeis celebrates Bernstein’s legacy with his daughter during Festival Week

April 20, 2018

In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday and the Festival of the Creative Arts, Slosberg Musical Hall hosted Bernstein’s daughter and a trio of musicians for a sequence of stories, clips and songs on Thursday night.

The show opened to a full house, with a duo of complementing pianos and couches off to the side. After a brief introduction from a Slosberg staff leader, Brandeis Leonard Bernstein fellows clarinetist Aaron Finkel ’20 and pianist Aaron Newitt ’21 performed Bernstein’s “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano.”

Professional pianist Michael Boriskin followed the two Brandeis underclassmen with Bernstein’s dedicated piece, “For Aaron Stern.” He quickly introduced the audience to his personal flair as he swayed lightly with the music and practiced dramatic hand gestures.

Once Boriskin sat back down, Nina Bernstein Simmons, Bernstein’s youngest daughter, brought her quick wit to the forefront of the celebration. She addressed her father’s insomnia, his both polarly extroverted and introverted personality and welcomed the audience “inside my father’s brain.” She fondly but snarkily recounted her father’s quirky habits like leaving crossword puzzle clues, not sleeping and eating baby food out of the jar before announcing the next few pieces.

The next three songs were tributes, too. The Stephen Sondheim ode, “For Stephen Sondheim,” played by Boriskin, was mellow, upbeat and sweet. Boriskin’s hand motions were as expressive as the Bernstein music he was playing. He then transitioned into the piece “For Elizabeth B. Ehrman,” which was vibrant and fast paced, before transitioning again into the aptly named, dreamlike “Ilana, the Dreamer.”

Bernstein Simmons stood up once again to discuss her father’s attraction to show pieces. The next one, Zez Confrey’s “Dizzy Fingers” was a show piece for sure. Quick, bold chords and dynamic changes only made the rendition more lively. Boriskin’s next act, his rendition of Aaron Copeland’s “Piano Variations” was just as showy as “Dizzy Fingers,” as were Boriskin’s attuned body language and gestures.

Bernstein Simmons then reminisced about Leonard Bernstein’s friendship with Copeland, who became the main composition advisor for Bernstein throughout his life. Boriskin played Copeland’s “El Salon Mexico” energetically, with increases in dynamics. He ended with a literal bang—of the keys.

Acclaimed vocalist and soprano Amy Burton joined the second pianist, John Musto, in a tribute to Copeland called “Canon for Aaron.” Her delicate operatic vocals were heartbreakingly beautiful despite the fact that she was not actually saying any words.

Simmons Bernstein next recalled her father’s relationship with two other musicians, Adolph Green and Comden. Her father was playfully frustrated with Green’s ability to recite any classical piece perfectly. Simmons Bernstein then entertained the audience with her speedy, silly rendition of a Green piece, “Mabel.” She next talked about her dad’s fascination with African-American music, a perfect transition into a bluesy piece, “Ain’t Got No Tears Left.”

Once again Burton and Musto teamed up, this time for “Ain’t Got No Tears Left.” Burton showed off her own flair for drama with this song, starting from her seat on a couch before standing up for the rest of her emotional vocal accompaniment. She concluded by collapsing back down on to the couch.

Boriskin and Musto dueted on the two pianos after, with Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse;” a deep, almost spooky piece. Simmons Bernstein stood to tell the audience about her father’s relationship with Jerome Robbins, his “On the Town” and “West Side Story” collaborator. Acetate recordings offered a blast from the past, as the elder Bernstein used them to work on pieces with fellow artists. In the tape, he apologized for a piece he considered mediocre, blaming his old friend, Copeland, for any musical mistakes.

The two pianists brought the show to intermission with an excerpt from Bernstein’s “Conchtown,” expertly bouncing their fingers across the keys. Simmons Bernstein, Boriskin, Musto and Burton bowed before exiting.

The second half of the show found the musicians playing pieces from a variety of composers. Musto played Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña.” Then, Musto and Boriskin sat at a single piano for Franz Schubert’s “Marche Caracteristique in C Major.” Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All” and Edvard Grieg’s “Nocturne, Opus 54, Number 4” were next, followed by a video of Bernstein singing Marc Blitzstein’s “Zipperfly” in his rough, gravelly voice.

A Bernstein family nursery rhyme called “Little Smary,” Bernstein’s “Lullaby for JZ” and his “On the Town” farewell, “Some Other Time,” concluded a show full of humor, nostalgia, and metric shifts. Bernstein Simmons thanked the audience, saying “We hope you enjoyed your tour inside my father’s insomniac brain” before the audience erupted into thunderous applause.

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