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As a composer, critics argued, Leonard Bernstein was a dabbler. A dilettante. A musical magpie who filched other people's ideas. A part-time composer who hogged the spotlight as the New York Philharmonic's flamboyant conductor.

"Bernstein does not compose with either originality or much skill," wrote composer Virgil Thomson from his bully pulpit as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. "Melodic distinction" and "concentration of thought" were missing, Thomson added.

This was typical of the opposition Bernstein faced during his composing career.

Although Bernstein cut a famously ebullient, self-confident public figure, the insults clearly hurt him in private.

"You know what's made me really distraught?" Bernsteain complained toward the end of his composing life. "I am only going to be remembered as the man who wrote 'West Side Story.' "

To some extent, he was dubbed a one-hit wonder following the musical's 1957 Broadway premiere. Songs such as "Maria," "Somewhere" and "Tonight" became American pop classics, with their melding of seductive Latino melodies and edgy jazz rhythms. The show remains a slam-dunk commercial success for any theater staging it.

Few midcentury music lovers knew much about Bernstein's other Broadway musicals, let alone his ballets, symphonies, sacred choral works and pieces for piano. Fewer still showed any inclination to take Bernstein's composition work seriously.

Better with age

With the 100th anniversary of Bernstein's birth this year, there are signs that the tide is finally turning.

Yes, there are abundant performances of "West Side Story" in the works, including one by the Minnesota Orchestra this week and another at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis this summer. But orchestras also are taking chances on lesser known Bernstein works.

"It's great that I'm being asked to do things I wouldn't normally be asked to do," said conductor Andrew Litton, a Bernstein enthusiast who grew up watching the New York Philharmonic's legendary Young People's Concerts.

Litton will conduct two of his favorite Bernstein pieces with the Minnesota Orchestra in June. That includes the ballet "Fancy Free," a brilliantly sassy jazz-classical fusion from 1944. Also on the program is "Chichester Psalms," a choral work from 1965 that melds pop music with passages of symphonic intensity.

Naysayers often dismissed Bernstein as a composer of other people's music. Litton said he doesn't buy that criticism.

"As much as he loved to borrow musical ideas, much like his hero Gustav Mahler did, Bernstein was a genius at making them his own."

One of Litton's favorites is "Dybbuk," a little known ballet from 1974 that sounds dissonant and progressive, with a less popular feel than Bernstein's other works. "It's a fascinating piece," he said.

In addition to music flecked with jazz, pop and gospel, Bernstein also wrote three symphonies. Litton singled out the second, "The Age of Anxiety," for special mention.

"I think it's one of his great masterpieces. He can move you in a heartbeat of music, and the next minute make you laugh or dance — he's an absolute genius at that."

Could it be that Bernstein's time as a composer has finally come? That the blurring of musical boundaries in the new millennium has made his work fashionable and relevant? With so much music available at the flick of a touch screen, listeners regularly make the kind of genre-hopping connections that came so naturally to Bernstein.

"The 'West Side Story' mantle is being shed quite effectively," Litton said. "I think Bernstein's music is being taken more seriously now than when it was new. Time has certainly been Bernstein's friend."

American themes

A hugely ambitious piece for singers, dancers, electric guitars and orchestra, Bernstein's "Mass" is a crucial work in the composer's canon.

Written in 1971 for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the piece provoked derision from some (including the New York Times reviewer) and bemusement from others. Incorporating elements of dance, theater and Christian rock, "Mass" questions the possibility of religious faith in a divisive world. It features a startling array of stylistic lurches — from hammering percussion to sacred chants and babbling music theater choruses — that capture the multifaceted nature of modern American life.

In our own era of political, racial and religious division, "Mass" presents a vision of social inclusiveness, with an almost prophetic embrace of cultural diversity.

"Performances of his 'Mass' used to be a rarity," Litton said, "but now seem to be everywhere." The Kansas City, Cincinnati and Chicago symphonies will all present "Mass" this year, and performances also are scheduled in London, Vienna and Dortmund, Germany.

VocalEssence conductor Philip Brunelle said he believes that Bernstein's sensitivity to social issues palpably affected his music, especially vocal pieces such as "Mass."

"He searched for texts that spoke to his time," Brunelle said. "Not striving for elegance, but looking to reach people's hearts and minds with a message.

" 'Mass' had a very strong antiwar text for its time. And many people simply did not believe a choral work should have such a message."

Brunelle said he also believes that Bernstein was a musical innovator, the way he borrowed and blended styles. "He captured a feeling of the USA in his rhythms and cross-rhythms that had not been utilized to that extent in the symphonic repertoire."

Litton said, "He used all the tools at his disposal." Bernstein's knack for combining genres meant "having Jewish music intermingled with jazz and serious romantic classical music, then throwing in difficult 12-tone writing."

Litton continued, "I think that when we look back, Bernstein will be one of the three or four most celebrated American composers of the 20th century. He stands with Copland, Gershwin and Samuel Barber.

"Bernstein wrote music that has become completely part of the fabric of our culture. For that he will always be remembered."

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.




Make a date with Bernstein: 4 upcoming events

“West Side Story”: The Minnesota Orchestra provides live accompaniment to the classic 1961 film version. (11 a.m. Thu., 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat., Orchestra Hall, Mpls., $34-$96, minnesotaorchestra.org)

“Candide”: Artistry presents Bernstein’s Voltaire-inspired musical. (March 1-3, Bloomington Center for the Arts, artistrymn.org)

“On the Waterfront”: Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra play Bernstein’s dark, simmering music for Elia Kazan’s 1954 movie masterpiece. (May 3-5, Orchestra Hall, Mpls., minnesotaorchestra.org)

Andrew Litton conducts Bernstein: The Minnesota Orchestra pairs Bernstein’s “Fancy Free,” a racy ballet about roistering off-duty sailors, with his “Chichester Psalms,” a choral setting of Bible verses. (June 1-2, Orchestra Hall, Mpls., minnesotaorchestra.org)

“West Side Story”: The Sharks and the Jets hit the Guthrie main stage for this year’s summer musical, directed by artistic boss Joseph Haj. (June 16-Aug. 26, Guthrie Theater, Mpls., guthrietheater.org)