Candide – by Aram Demirjian

by Aram Demirjian, KSO Music Director

In the final interview Leonard Bernstein gave in his life, he said, “I am a beginner…all the time.”

Bernstein’s life and work defied category. As a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, scholar and social activist, he modeled the “bliss of ambiguities” as which he described the musical experience, moving with ease between the classical, Broadway and Hollywood vernaculars, and refusing to be pigeonholed by their conventions. He was at the vanguard of an emerging American musical identity in the Euro-centric classical music world, and perhaps his most lasting impact was demystifying the bliss of musical ambiguity to the American public.

Candide captures Bernstein’s essence perhaps more than any other work in his extensive output. At its simplest, it is a coming-of-age story of two naive teenagers. At another layer, it is a timeless critique of class distinction, imperialism, religious hypocrisy, scientific ignorance and, above all, blind optimism. On an even deeper level, it is Bernstein’s loving embrace of humanity, with all of its flaws. Candide lives in a place of contradiction. It features largely operatic forms with decidedly theatrical text, and it refuses to cohere to a singular genre or musical style. Bernstein, himself, would not categorize Candide as an opera or a musical, or a comedy or a drama, saying, “We must leave that to be decided by others…Maybe it will turn out to be some sort of new form; I don’t know. There seems to be no really specific precedent for it in our theater, so time must tell.”

Time has passed, and we still haven’t decided. Candide‘s premiere was considered a failure, and it has since been fraught with numerous attempts by Bernstein and myriad librettists to revise, refine and perfect it, with each subsequent version creating new issues for all of those it solves. Musicologist Helen Smith speculates that had Bernstein lived longer, he would have continued to tinker with Candide. “Why do you suppose that Beethoven was always slashing out and crossing out everything?” Bernstein said. “Because he was always beginning, he could always do it better.” It was in that spirit that Cal MacLean and I endeavored to begin with Candide, searching for our own solutions to the show’s challenges and contradictions. Tonight’s performance uses the last version that Bernstein conducted, the 1988 Scottish Opera Version, as a point of departure, but streamlined and articulated to offer the Clarence Brown/Knoxville Symphony attempt at this expansive story.

Candide is a riddle that will never be solved to perfection, and therein lies part of its beauty: it allows us to begin again every time we encounter it. In that sense, the experience of the show is a microcosm of its message: ‘the best of all possible worlds’ is a spurious place. But by approaching life and all of its challenges with a sense of beginning, we open ourselves up to a world of possibilities, and “we’ll do the best we know.”