A major moment in the history of classical music in New York took place last night at Steinway Hall, where Leann Osterkamp gave a breathtaking and often breathless performance of Leonard Bernstein works for solo piano. Had such a program ever been staged in this city? Definitely not in the last thirty years, possibly never. There have been thousands of all-Bernstein programs performed here over the decades, and Bernstein conducted a handful of those from the piano. But beyond playing for his friends and family, it’s not clear if the composer himself ever gave a solo recital here.
Even Osterkamp, whose new Steinway album comprises all kinds of rare Bernstein solo works which she unearthed during some herculean research at the Library of Congress, couldn’t solve that mystery. If this was in fact a first, it was one worthy of the composer. As Nancy Garniez has asserted, a composer’s private works can be even more interesting than those written for public performance, and some of these pieces were exactly that. One of the most revealing numbers was written for his daughter Jamie, who was in the audience. On one hand, Osterkamp reveled in its lively, balletesque passages, but she also gave every considered ounce of gravitas to its knotty, pensively workmanlike explorations in Second Viennese School melodicism.
That lighthearted/rigorous dichotomy pervaded much of the rest of the material. Many of the pieces were miniatures, including a concluding set of five of Bernstein’s Seven Anniveraries. Osterkamp revealed how rather than being written with specific friends in mind, Bernstein had devised them as a suite of neo-baroque dance numbers: they’d been kicking around his “song junkyard” for years before the composer started doling them out as presents.
Much of the material on the album has never been previously recorded. Who knew that Bernstein wrote a piano sonata? That he could actually play its jackhammer staccato and whirlwind curlicues at age twenty is impressive, to say the least, and Osterkamp held up her end mightily. There’s also a lingering deep-sky passage in the second movement that sounds like it was nicked from the final movement of the Quartet For the End of Time.
Wait – Messiaen hadn’t written that yet. Which speaks to the astonishing range of idioms Bernstein had assimilated by that time. Was this juvenalia? In the sense that it’s gratuitously cross-genre and showoffy, sure. But it was also a rewarding glimpse into the young composer’s mindset.
The rest of the program followed suit, from enigmatic twelve-tone-ish romps that recalled Bernstein’s contemporary Vincent Persichetti, to the briefest flicker of West Side Story riffage that flashed by in what seemed like a nanosecond. Osterkamp couldn’t resist telling the crowd to keep their eyes open for that one.
She played the concert on a Spirio, Steinway’s analog player piano which can deliver both perfect playback of what’s just been played on it, as well as dynamically nuanced versions of the hours and hours of digital “rolls” available. She left it alone to recreate Bernstein’s own interpretation of Ravel while video of the actual performance, from Paris in the late 50s, played on the screen overhead. For pretty much everyone in the crowd, it was as close to seeing Bernstein himself playing solo onstage as we’ll ever get.