August 25 marks the 100th birthday of American composer, conductor, pianist, author, educator, and all-around-genius Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)! I grew up in the New York area in the late ’50s and 1960s, and Bernstein was such a major part of the cultural landscape of that area and that time. He was frequently on the still new-ish medium of television, usually expounding about classical music in terms anyone could understand, yet so eloquently. I won’t go into his myriad accomplishments (here’s Wikipedia’s helpful entry), but as a kid I was, like so many people, deeply affected by and in love with his music for West Side Story, which I first saw on the big screen in Manhattan shortly after it came out in 1961. Even though it was clearly a product of its time (and place), it’s still thrilling and moving and timeless.
So, I was truly excited the first time I came across Jorge Morel’s fantastic West Side Story Suite with its marvelous guitar-reworking of themes from “I Feel Pretty,” “America” and “Maria.” That suite’s been covered by a number of fine players, from Morel himself to Pablo Villegas to Kaori Muraji to Stephen Yates, and more. For our centenary tribute, though, we’re going in a slightly different direction: a wonderful version of “America” arranged by Franciszek Wieczorek, leader of Poland’s Silesian Guitar Octet (active with different lineups since 2001); and Swedish guitarist Per-Olov Kindgren‘s touching solo arrangement of “Maria,” below.
And if you ever want to add to your classical music education, check out some of the episodes Bernstein hosted of the 1950s television show Omnibus, most of which are on YouTube. What a brilliant and important figure he was!