At the end of the Tanglewood season, which corresponded closely with the August 25th date of Leonard Bernstein’s birth a century ago, the Boston Symphony offered the climactic event in a year-long Bernstein celebration representing music for orchestra, ballet, voice, chorus, and musical theater, including two complete shows (On the Town and Candide) and a live-orchestra accompaniment to the West Side Story movie.
Exactly 30 years ago, the BSO had presented a four-day Bernstein bash honoring his 70th birthday. At his own suggestion, the events that would benefit the Tanglewood Music Center. There the composer had first conducted an orchestra in concert, first conducted an opera (the American premiere of Peter Grimes in 1946), and where he had returned almost every year to conduct the Boston Symphony, to coach the fellowship conductors of the TMC, and to lead a thrilling performance with the TMC Orchestra. I had been asked the previous February to produce a book celebrating Bernstein, something “substantive and elegant” to be given away to major donors to the Music Center. The resulting Sennets and Tuckets: A Bernstein Celebration, a limited-edition volume published by David R. Godine, included contributions describing Bernstein’s effect on various people as conductor, composer, teacher, television performer, and international celebrity.
The Boston Symphony then undertook to celebrate all those aspects of his life and work in a “bash” included a BSO concert, the TMC Orchestra concert, a series of tribute commissions from composer friends with orchestral variations on the song “New York, New York” from On the Town, a fully staged performance of Mass by the opera program of Indiana University School of Music, and a star-studded four-hour-long concert on his actual birthday, much of which can be seen HERE in a version edited for German TV.
In 2018 Tanglewood was rich with performances of Bernstein’s music, but the actual 100th birthday on August 25th had naturally been set as the climactic high point. Of course, the major difference compared to 1988 was that Lenny himself could no longer be present. Then artists had played directly to him in his box seat in the middle of the Shed; Saturday’s contingent aimed their artistry at the broader audience, which included his three children, personal friends, past collaborators, and enthusiastic fans.
It was a foregone conclusion that many excerpts from Bernstein’s own compositions would be included, played or conducted by musicians with close ties of varying types. But the celebration was not to be all Bernstein, any more than it had been in 1988. Mangement decided to devote the first half to his work as a composer and the second half to his work as a conductor (that is, repertory especially connected with him). At various points a few videos, mostly containing statements by various well-known musicians, describing the influence Leonard Bernstein had had on their lives, could cover rearrangements of the stage.
Andris Nelsons vividly led-off with the best-known “opening” music in Bernstein’s output, the overture to Candide. Between numbers, Audra McDonald served as a gracious and informative host, introducing the work and artists to come and recounting occasional anecdotes about them.
The second selection brought the violinist Midori, who had become famous overnight in her early teens while playing the solo part in Bernstein’s Serenade under the composer’s direction at Tanglewood and twice broke a string during the performance. The speed and calm self-possession with which she switched her violin with that of the concertmaster to continue without missing a beat, and then repeating the action when another string broke a few minutes later with that of the assistant concertmaster, continuing on without showing any sign of nerves was a never-to-be-forgotten memory to those who saw it (I was one), and the incident made the first page of the New York Times the next day. Fittlingly, Midori returned some three decades later to play the opening movement of the Serenade (no broken strings this time), under Christoph Eschenbach.
The splendid young soprano Nadine Sierra then joined the orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for Kaddish II from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, the most infrequently heard of his symphonies. Sierra’s expressive singing put it over superbly. Keith Lockhart conducted.
One of three Meditations for cello and orchestra from Mass followed, as the young Austrian-Persian cellist Kian Soltani soloed with the orchestra and Eschenbach. In a concert that contained performances mostly by musicians who had worked with Bernstein directly, Audra McDonald noted a few who represented the next generation, whose connection with the composer would necessarily come from the music alone; among these were Nadine Sierra, just a toddler when Bernstein died in 1990, and Soltani, who had not even been born yet.
The portion devoted to Bernstein’s own music ended, as perhaps it had to, with selections from West Side Story. The selections included the dramatic Prologue (dance music that, from the very beginning, sets the two rival gangs at odds), followed by the Jet Song (with Clyde Alves in the principal role of Riff). Tony Yazbeck sang Tony’s first avowal of love, “Maria.” Isabel Leonard and Jessica Vosk sang the dramatic duet between Maria and Anita, “A Boy Like That.” And the first half of the concert closed with a thrilling rendition of the climactic Quintet, in which the Sharks and Jets prepare to rumble, while Maria and Anita both look forward to after-rumble activities with their boyfriends; Tony and Riff are getting themselves ready as well. I can’t think of another Broadway show that has such a dramatically and musically successful large ensemble.
Mahler, the composer whom Bernstein, more than anyone else in this country, brought into the mainstream, dominated the second half, along with Copland, Bernstein’s closest friend among American composers. Nelsons led the BSO and Thomas Hampson in “Der Schildwache Nachtlied” (The Watchman’s Night Song) from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in an extended version of the finale of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, from the full ballet.
John Williams conducted his new tribute to Bernstein, Highwood’s Ghost, which had premiered a week earlier under Nelsons. As before, Yo-Yo Ma and harpist Jessica Zhou soloed with splendor.
Bernstein had promoted Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection to the world for several decades. A work with a glorious culmination, it provided the official closing. With Nelsons conducting, Nadine Sierra and Susan Graham sang Nietzsche’s words leading to the very hushed appearance of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a passage that grows gradually in dynamics from an absolute hush to an earth-splitting paean.
This ending naturally induced the packed audience to cheer not only the performers of the Mahler symphony selection, but all the participants of the evening, who returned to the stage in a long, happy line. After the applause had gone on for a considerable time, Audra McDonald sang—unaccompanied at first—“There’s a place for us…” and little by little, all the singers, solo instrumentalists, conductors, and orchestra—built up to a glorious, climactic performance of “Somewhere,” from West Side Story, sending everyone out into the night in a mood of harmony and hope.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.