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Leonard Bernstein: Cool

If you’d like a remarkable example of the genius of Leonard Bernstein, I recommend that you listen – or listen again – to the song “Cool,” from West Side Story. Bernstein needed a song for the character Riff to sing to build up the tension before the gang fight between the Jets and the Sharks. If I told you his solution was to take Baroque counterpoint – a fugue, to be precise – the syncopated rhythms of jazz, and the atonal twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg… and to mix them all together with a singer, a vibraphone, standard orchestral instruments, a drum set, and finger snapping, you’d probably say, “That sounds preposterous.” And it does. But that’s just what he did. And the result—which for anybody but Leonard Bernstein would have been inconceivable—was a fabulous Broadway show-stopper. Even the greatest hitters don’t always hit home runs, and even geniuses don’t always write masterpieces. But with “Cool,” Bernstein hit it out of the park.

A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

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Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.