Boston kicks off year of US tributes to Bernstein
By WILLIAM J. KOLE
He was a wunderkind: the youngest music director ever to lead the New York Philharmonic and the genius behind the score to “West Side Story.”
The late Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 next year, and Friday, the Boston Symphony Orchestra kicked off a new season dedicated to the Massachusetts-born composer-conductor, one of America’s most famous maestros.
Carnegie Hall is getting into the act, too, launching its 2017-18 season Oct. 4 with a Bernstein program by the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin. And the New York Philharmonic will perform Bernstein’s complete symphonic works in a centennial remembrance that starts Oct. 25.
Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony’s music director, calls Bernstein an “iconic figure” who influenced generations – including his own.
“Growing up in Latvia in the 1980s and ’90s, Leonard Bernstein always loomed large in the hearts and minds of all of us who aspired to a life in music, including mine,” Nelsons told The Associated Press in an email.
“It was Bernstein’s exuberance, passion and all-encompassing love of music that convinced all who encountered him that music was essential, affirming and necessary for a full life, in which beauty and inspiration ignite the very best of the human spirit,” said Nelsons, now in his fourth season leading the BSO.
Things to know about Bernstein and the centennial celebrations:
Bernstein was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in gritty Lawrence, Mass., on Aug. 25, 1918. At age 10, the course of his life changed forever when an aunt gave the family an upright piano.
Bernstein’s father ran a beauty-supply business, but the young musician wanted none of that. He studied at Harvard, the Curtis Institute and the Boston Symphony’s summer retreat at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. Famed composers Aaron Copland and Serge Koussevitzky recognized his talents and mentored him.
He was just 25 when he got his big break, filling in for the New York Philharmonic last-minute to conduct a nationally broadcast concert. He became the Philharmonic’s first U.S.-born conductor in 1958 and won a slew of Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award in 1985. Bernstein died five years later at 72 in New York City.
Nelsons calls Bernstein a “trailblazer,” and that’s arguably his greatest legacy: winning global acclaim as an American at a time when European conductors dominated the international music scene.
Bernstein’s 1943 ballet about a trio of sailors granted a day’s shore leave in New York became the runaway Broadway smash hit “On The Town,” later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. He followed that with the movie score for “On the Waterfront,” the Tony Award-winning “Wonderful Town,” Broadway’s “Candide” and “West Side Story,” the acclaimed musical which became a film in 1961.
A close friend of the Kennedys’, Bernstein never forgot his Massachusetts roots. He spent four decades guest-conducting the Boston Symphony and wrote his “Divertimento” for the orchestra’s own centennial in 1980.
Friday evening’s Boston Symphony performance highlighted some of Bernstein’s greatest hits, including the “Symphonic Dances” featured in “West Side Story.”
But it also celebrated Bernstein’s versatility with renditions of his vocal music performed by renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who hosted the season opener, and soprano Julia Bullock. Elizabeth Rowe, the orchestra’s principal flute, performed Bernstein’s “Halil.”
Carnegie’s tribute next month will include “Symphonic Dances” and Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront” Symphonic Suite.
The New York Philharmonic’s salute – performances of Bernstein’s “Serenade” by superstar violinist Joshua Bell – will be conducted by Alan Gilbert and Leonard Slatkin. And the Philadelphia Orchestra is devoting its Oct. 5 opening night to Bernstein, followed Oct. 12-15 with concerts that will riff through the entire “West Side Story” score.