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This will be our reply…

July 30, 2010

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

– Leonard Bernstein, about the assassination of John F. Kennedy

Picture from Amazon, soundtrack recording cover

I have been at the Atlantic Music Festival for three weeks now. This festival was founded a few years ago through the desire to seek talented young musicians and composers with a commitment to making beautiful music. This music is then presented in a series of free orchestral and chamber concerts.

The above quote by Leonard Bernstein, a famous composer and political activist, was selected for our motto. It’s on our website, the programs handed out during concerts, and on the t-shirts we sell to both audience and AMF artists.

Why this quote?

It is significant that both Bernstein’s political thoughts and his compositions were not separate entities. Quite the contrary. The more famous he became, the more he used his name, money, and music to back up causes or movements, to the point that he became monitored for supposed political subversion, according to an essay on Leonard Bernstein on Carnegie Hall’s website.

This dedication to civil rights and his own political views can be seen in the works he collaborated on. West Side Story, with its retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but in the slums of New York City, contains dark themes of social inequality and oppression. It contains within its humorous lyrics and jazzy rhythms the bleak reality of what was, and in a sense what still is.

For example, the song “America,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is presented from the perspective of the Puerto Rican Sharks. In it, they sing about the fact that they have left Puerto Rico, with its hurricanes and population and debt, for America, the land of industrial development and wealth and equality for all.

Supposedly.

Instead, what these immigrants find is that there’s a catch. Opportunity is available only to those who are a certain social class and are a certain race.

Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America
Life is all right in America
If you’re all white in America
Here you are free and you have pride
Long as you stay on your own side
Free to be anything you choose
Free to wait tables and shine shoes
Everywhere grime in America
Organized crime in America
Terrible time in America

They soon lose the rose-colored glass and realize that life here is merely a matter of survival.

Their obstacles are things like the oppression and discrimination which caused them so much bitterness, the hopelessness of never being able to rise above their low social class because of said discrimination. This proceeds on, to the point where they feel as if they have no choice but to embrace the own discriminative views toward other people that are the very things that they feel so bitter about. Through no fault of their own, they are led by their circumstances and upbringing and the simple way people like Officer Krupke in the musical treat them to believe that there is no other way of life for them.

No way to go against the grain and change things.

And in the end, this destroys them.

It was such attitudes that Bernstein sought to change through the making of his music. To him, music was not simply, or only, a distraction from or simply an expression of violent emotions. Or other emotions for that matter. It was not enough to have music to be a mere acknowledgment. To him it had the potential to be more than simply that — it could be a means of creating mutual understanding and peace.

A reaction.

A reply.

Not just of melody and rhythm alone, but what we as human beings, with our understandings and passion and intensity, can pour into it.

And it is with this understanding that we as musicians will shape the future.

I was reminded of this the night of the Atlantic Music Festival’s opening chamber concert on July 21. It was raining buckets, and throughout the concert one could hear the rain drops pattering on the concrete outside and against the windows. Not only that, there was quite the violent thunderstorm going on.

Throughout the violence of the thunderstorm, our musicians played. Beautifully, passionately, intensely, and devotedly.

A reply, perhaps.

And despite the poor weather conditions, quite a crowd showed up at the concert.

And when it was over, the audience gave our musicians a standing ovation, several times over — a reply to a reply.

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