The lesser-known Halil Nocturne gives insight into the depth of Bernstein’s genius
By Geoffrey Larson
Leonard Bernstein mania is in full fling in 2018, the centennial year of his birth, and his masterworks are popping up on the programs of orchestras everywhere. I’m always excited for performances of music from his famous stage works like West Side Story and Candide, but there is so much depth and variety to his work as a composer; one great benefit of this anniversary celebration is that we are suddenly getting a chance to hear the lesser-known works by Bernstein, hearing different sides of the famous musician’s character. In the symphonies and other somewhat rarely-heard works, Bernstein strays from the more singable, jazzy music that he is famous for, veering into very serious, personal territory by way of music that is less easily categorizable, often flirting with atonality to powerful effect.
Bernstein’s Jewish heritage becomes a major influence in many of these pieces, and Halil: Nocturne for Solo Flute and Orchestra is one that really deserves to be heard more often. (I will conduct two performances of this work on April 14 and 15, 2018, with flute soloist Rachel Blumenthal and Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.) This music is Bernstein at his most intimate, most personal. The score is dedicated to the memory of Yadin Tanenbaum “and his fallen brothers.” A promising flute student, Tanenbaum was killed in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He was nineteen years old. Here are Bernstein’s own words on the piece:
“Halil (the Hebrew word for ‘flute’) is formally unlike any other work I have written, but is like much of my music in its struggle between tonal and non-tonal forces. In this case, I sense that struggle as involving wars and the threat of wars, the overwhelming desire to live, and the consolations of art, love and the hope for peace. It is a kind of night-music, which, from its opening 12-tone row to its ambiguously diatonic final cadence, is an ongoing conflict of nocturnal images: wish-dreams, nightmares, repose, sleeplessness, night-terrors and sleep itself, Death’s twin brother. I never knew Yadin Tanenbaum, but I know his spirit.”
Check out a video performance of Halil below, and get to know a different side of America’s most legendary conductor and composer.