Leonard Bernstein, the famed American conductor/composer whose reach stretched from Broadway (“West Side Story”) to the world’s most prestigious concert halls, would have turned 100 on Aug. 25. The classical music world has been awash in centennial tributes to the man who, until his death in 1990, was as comfortable talking to kids about classical music as lecturing at Harvard.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra — Leonard Bernstein Centennial
When: July 12-Aug. 19
Where: Ravinia Festival, 418 Sheridan Rd., Highland Park
Tickets: $10 lawn, $25 pavilion
But the Bernstein celebration beginning this month at the Ravinia Festival has an especially personal touch. The festival’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts and other events were planned by two musicians who worked with Bernstein — Ravinia president and CEO Welz Kauffman and conductor Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. As a 16-year-old music student, Kauffman was Bernstein’s rehearsal pianist for one season at the Tanglewood Festival, Bernstein’s summertime base in Massachusetts. Alsop also studied at Tanglewood, becoming one of Bernstein’s last conducting proteges, in the late 1980s.
“Welz and I have been talking about this for a few years,” said Alsop, who made her debut with the CSO at Ravinia in 2002. This season she became Ravinia’s first artistic curator, a post she will hold for the next few seasons. “It’s been a fantastic experience because we really had a lot of time to think about what we hoped to achieve. We considered a lot of different approaches. There’s so much repertoire, so many aspects to Bernstein. We wanted to put together programs that somehow captured the breadth of the man.”
Ravinia’s Bernstein festival stretches through the season and includes chamber events as well as a children’s concert in addition to CSO performances. Alsop’s six Ravinia concerts with the CSO — July 12 and 14, July 24 and 28 and Aug. 18-19 —cover a wide range. Highlights include Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 July 14, the CSO premiere of Bernstein’s “Mass” July 28 and his Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) paired with Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony Aug. 19.
Bernstein’s recordings of Mahler symphonies in the 1960s helped revive interest in the composer whose reputation waned after his death in 1911. Music by composers Bernstein admired — Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Tchaikovsky, George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel and Dmitri Shostakovich — are also on the schedule.
Ravinia audiences first heard Bernstein conduct in 1944, eight months he made front-page news as a stunning, last-minute replacement for an ailing guest conductor at the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein was the Philharmonic’s music director from 1958 to 1969, and Ravinia’s Bernstein celebration opens July 12 with a repeat of the program he conducted at the festival in 1986 on his final tour as the Philharmonic’s much-beloved laureate conductor. Violinist Joshua Bell is soloist in Bernstein’s “Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium).” The concert also includes the sprightly Overture to Bernstein’s “Candide” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”).
“‘Serenade’ is one of his many masterpieces,” said Alsop. “It epitomizes Bernstein because its inspiration was literary. Bernstein loved words, he loved literature, he was extraordinarily well read. And yet he was able to distill extremely high-level thought processes into something very accessible and tangible. This piece draws its inspiration from Plato’s ‘Symposium.’ ‘Oh my goodness, how can this be something I’m going to have any fun with?’ But he distills this narrative into a dinner party with a lot of friends. Each person at the dinner party picks up the theme of the last person. Aristophanes has had too much to drink; somebody is hiccupping. There’s an incredible sense of humor to it.”
Bernstein famously conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with its stirring “Ode to Joy” movement, in Berlin in December 1989, several weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein’s “Mass” is a similarly large-scale work written for the opening celebrations of the Washington, D.C., Kennedy Center in 1971. The CSO’s July 28 performance includes the Chicago Children’s Choir as well as dancers and actors directed by Kevin Newbury.
“I think ‘Mass’ is one of the great 20th century works,” said Alsop. “It’s his Mahler Eighth [Symphony]. It’s a big statement piece. This is the piece in which he aspired to get his big message across — of tolerance, self-exploration, of unity.
“The genius of Leonard Bernstein didn’t lie in any one distinct area,” said Alsop. “He was a genius in every area. It was more about the way he could connect the dots in life, between everything he did. It’s not possible to do justice to him, but we tried to put together programs of work that had special meaning in his career and his life.”
Wynne Delacoma is a local freelance writer.