Preview: 'Grunge, classical music and Leonard Bernstein'

 Brett Mitchell will lead the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's upcoming 'Bernstein At 100' concerts in Wellington and Auckland. (Photo by Peter Lockley)

Brett Mitchell will lead the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's upcoming 'Bernstein At 100' concerts in Wellington and Auckland. (Photo by Peter Lockley)

Brett Mitchell joined host Zoë George in the Radio New Zealand studios to discuss his upcoming 'Bernstein At 100' concerts with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, presented at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington on Friday, May 11, and Auckland Town Hall on Friday, May 18. Hear the complete interview below, or read more.

Classical music, grunge, and musical theatre all have something in common – Leonard Bernstein according to effervescent conductor Brett Mitchell.

Brett is in the country to conduct the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Bernstein at 100 and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concerts in Wellington and Auckland over the next two weekends.

He says what mattered to Bernstein was the quality of the music, not the genre and he embraced everything during his 50 year career. As a result many in America and around the globe embraced him, according to Brett.

West Side Story is arguably one of his most famous works. It combined jazz, cha cha, and mambo and reflected New York in the 1950s. “For me that’s part of his legacy – his willingness to embrace all different aspects of music available to him,” Brett says.

Brett says he knew of Bernstein’s music before he realised how big a deal he was. It was in 1990, when Bernstein died, that Brett started to understand the composer’s reach.

 Brett Mitchell at the Radio New Zealand studios on Tuesday, May 8. (Photo by Tom Cardy)

Brett Mitchell at the Radio New Zealand studios on Tuesday, May 8. (Photo by Tom Cardy)

Bernstein’s music has been described as the sound of New York, and Brett agrees. “There’s an energy about it. It sounds distinctly American. That is not French music. That is not German music. It’s not Percy Granger! It could only come from America.”

“We call America the melting pot… and what is West Side Story if not a melting pot of musical cultures.”

That melting pot is also reflected in Bernstein’s On The Town which follows the adventures of three navy sailors on shore leave through New York City during 40s wartime. Bernstein was 26 when he wrote it and included not only stories about boys having fun, but themes around female empowerment. “He was always at the forefront of things,” Brett says. “He was young and progressive. It’s not hard to figure out why in a show about three sailors on shore leave, there’s a fair amount of feminism in there. As it should be!”

Brett, who was also a jazz pianist before he picked up the baton, says ‘Some Other Time’ from On The Town became a favourite to play. He is thrilled the NZSO are performing it this week.

Only one or two other musicians have had such an effect on Brett. “His is the towering figure of American 20th century classical music,” he says. “He broke down the barriers… and the boundaries.”

Just before Leonard Bernstein died he was awarded a lifetime Grammy award. That had a monumental effect on Brett. “Well here’s this high-brow classical musician who’s hanging with Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and pop musicians I was growing up with,” Brett says.

“I remember him saying ‘listen - there are better and worse Mozart symphonies. There are better and worse Schubert songs. There are better and worse Beatles songs’.

“All that mattered was the quality of the music.”