“We really don’t want to be jerks,” Jamie Bernstein told The Observer recently. “Who wants to be a jerk?”
Ms. Bernstein was sitting at the dining room table of her Chelsea apartment, talking about the legacy of her father, Leonard Bernstein. It’s that legacy that she doesn’t want to be a jerk about.
Along with her sister and brother and the small staff and board of the Leonard Bernstein Office Inc., Ms. Bernstein is in charge of overseeing the future of Lenny. This intimate group is the gatekeeper for all things Bernstein, giving the final approval for new productions, adaptations and arrangements.
It was to this group that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra appealed a couple of years ago. The ensemble was beginning to conceptualize an all-American concert featuring Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” Suite and Chris Thile’s Mandolin Concerto. (The concert takes place this Saturday at Carnegie Hall.) The consensus was that Bernstein would make a great complement, but he wrote next to nothing for chamber orchestra.
One of Orpheus’s artistic directors, the violinist Ronnie Bauch, had an idea. In the late 1970s Mr. Bauch had played in a performance of Bernstein’s savagely peppy 1952 one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, at the Whitney Museum. Why not create an orchestral suite out of the irresistibly tuneful work, as Bernstein himself had done with the dazzling “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story”?
Mr. Bauch approached Paul Chihara, a composer and experienced arranger who had worked with Orpheus before. Early in his career Mr. Chihara had also studied under Bernstein at the Tanglewood Festival, so he seemed like a natural fit to extract a suite out of Trouble in Tahiti.
“It’s never been one of my favorite theatrical works because the story is so depressing,” Mr. Chihara admitted when we spoke at the café at Riverside Church, where Orpheus was rehearsing. But he is devoted to the score, and teared up as he described a particularly emotional passage.
“You can’t touch Bernstein without the Bernstein Office,” he said. “That ain’t easy, and it took a long time. They didn’t respond. Orpheus wrote the letter, and for the longest time we didn’t hear. And I thought, ‘Oh, they’re looking me over.’”
Mr. Chihara had been introduced to Jamie Bernstein through the composer William Bolcom, and she was supportive of the idea, but others on the staff and board had initial reservations.
“There was some discussion about it, because not everybody was sure it was a great idea, or necessary,” Ms. Bernstein said. “You know, it’s not an automatic ‘yes’ that you would extract orchestral music from a piece that is so vocal. No one had heard of Paul Chihara and it all sounded kind of odd, but eventually everyone got used to the idea and found that he was a stand-up guy and knew what he was doing.”
The process of getting this kind of approval through artists’ estates trusts and the like has gotten renewed attention with the controversial new Broadway production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The production overhauled the work, particularly its sound, in an attempt to make it work as musical theater rather than opera. (A musical, it goes without saying, can make a lot more money for an artist’s descendants than an opera can.)
Similar issues were raised by the recent Broadway revival of West Side Story, which translated some of the dialogue into Spanish. The approval for the production had to work its long, winding way not just through the Bernstein Office, but through all the other collaborators’ estates as well.
“I had my reservations here and there,” Jamie Bernstein said about the West Side revival. “But overall I thought they did a pretty good job. The good news is that it finally happened, and now it’s on tour.”
That points to perhaps the most pressing concern for an artist’s heirs: that works continue to remain in the public eye. West Side Story is done all the time in high schools, but major Broadway revivals—and the professional tours that follow—matter in keeping something culturally central. But what form should those revivals take? As with the Trouble in Tahiti suite, how much adaptation is too much adaptation? What exactly is the “legacy” that an artist’s heirs are supposed to preserve? What should Jamie Bernstein say yes and no to?
She spoke of a recent production of Candide at the Staatsoper in Berlin, directed by Vincent Boussard, that she referred to as the “Sprockets Candide,” after the old Eurotrash parody skit on Saturday Night Live. It was hit with a change-or-desist order from Boosey & Hawkes, Bernstein’s publisher. And you might have trouble getting permission for a production of West Side Story set on the moon.
But Ms. Bernstein said her main consideration was getting her father’s music, especially the lesser-known works, as wide an audience as possible. That was what eventually led to the approval of the Trouble in Tahiti suite.
“If more people hear that music, great,” she said. “What’s the objection?”
Even if the opera’s critique of the suburban American dream can feel a little been-there-done-that after American Beauty, Mad Men and the rest, Trouble in Tahiti seethed with personal passion. The unhappily married central couple was originally Sam and Jennie, Bernstein’s parents’ names, though the wife’s was changed to the more singable Dinah (the name of a Bernstein grandmother). Like their namesakes, Bernstein’s parents fought bitterly, and their acrimony often resulted from the family’s frequent relocations; as Sam made more money, their houses grew larger.
Bernstein translated these frustrations and sour memories into music of bitterly winking good humor. At Orpheus’s rehearsal at Riverside Church, people kept mentioning the need to make the instrumental lines “sing.”
The opera and Mr. Chihara’s suite both begin with a bluesy, deceptively optimistic clarinet riff. Bernstein used, as a kind of Greek chorus, a trio of singers whose music has the smoothly peppy style of radio shows of the period. Mr. Chihara translated their opening number, “Mornin’ Sun,” into the brasses: muted trumpets and trombone.
The sunny opening quickly leads into a surging rendition of the aching melody of “There Is a Garden,” the account Dinah gives to her therapist of a dream she’s had, a vision of escape and a different life. As if to illustrate the life she’s desperate to leave, the orchestra moves into “There’s a Law,” the boisterously chauvinistic song that Sam sings in the locker room of his gym, before a calypso-tinged excerpt from “What a Movie,” in which Dinah describes a dance number in the cheesy film she’s just returned from (the movie is called Trouble in Tahiti). Finally, a solo cello—not in the original score—introduces the opera’s grim, brave ending, with nothing changed and little learned.
“If Lennie can do it,” Mr. Chihara said with a smile, speaking of the famous solo cello introduction to “Somewhere” in the West Side Story Symphonic Dances, “so can I.”