Leonard Bernstein at 100: The Houston Symphony Celebrates

Leonard Bernstein at 100: The Houston Symphony Celebrates

On the evening of November 13, 1943, the 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein was out celebrating the successful premiere of his first composition to appear before the New York public: I Hate Music, a charming, miniature song cycle about a child’s irreverent musings. After much carousing, Bernstein received a call informing him that the eminent conductor Bruno Walter was ill and that as the New York Philharmonic’s assistant conductor, it fell to him to lead the concert the following day. There would be no time for rehearsal, and the concert would be nationally broadcast over the radio. Completely hung over, Bernstein met with a sniffling Walter to go over the complicated scores the next morning and called his parents to tell them to come to the concert (his father, Sam Bernstein, had always tried to dissuade him from pursuing a career in music). That afternoon, he walked out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall to make his debut conducting a major professional orchestra.

Leonard Bernstein in 1945.

Because he was Leonard Bernstein, it was perhaps the most memorable and successful debut of any conductor in music history. He made the front page of the New York Times, and overnight he became a star. He would go on to be one of the century’s greatest conductors, as well as a charismatic television personality, a passionate educator and an outspoken political activist. 2018 marks the centennial of his birth, and orchestras all over the world are celebrating his legacy.

Though he won his greatest fame as a conductor during his life, as the years pass Bernstein is increasingly remembered as a composer, an irony that would have amused and gratified him. The musical culture of the twentieth century was marked by a sharp divide between the highbrow and lowbrow, the classical and the popular. Leonard Bernstein was one of the few figures to bridge that divide, composing hit musicals, an operetta and a film score in addition to symphonies, ballets, operas and sacred works. Even in his most ‘serious’ compositions, his love of vernacular styles like jazz and rock ‘n’ roll shines through. Likewise, he brought the age-old symphonic techniques of the great composers to his popular scores, giving them a rare complexity and richness.

Leonard Bernstein conducting.

During his life he was often criticized for this musical cross pollination, and many of his contemporaries in the classical music world never took him seriously as a composer. Now, over 27 years after his passing, his works seem to have found a secure place in the repertoire. West Side Story has even found a home in the opera house, as our friends at Houston Grand Opera have shown with their upcoming production. His music certainly has catchy tunes, but it also has masterful craftsmanship and powerful emotions that keep musicians and audiences coming back to his scores year after year.

The Symphony hopes to give Houston a taste of Bernstein’s accomplishments as a composer with a diverse selection of works throughout February and March, including the popular overture from his operetta, Candide, and Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, Bernstein’s first Broadway triumph. Our February concerts culminate with Hilary Hahn Celebrates Bernstein, in which the three-time Grammy Award-winning violinist will perform the Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, a virtuoso violin concerto in all but name.

Not content to confine these festivities to one city, the Houston Symphony also looks forward to the world-wide release of our new Music of the Americas recording for Pentatone in February; the recording features music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony in an incandescent rendition of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The Houston Symphony will also take much of this great American music to Europe during our two-week tour of the continent with Hilary Hahn in March. The Symphony will play Bernstein’s music at each of the tour’s stops in Brussels, Essen, Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, Hamburg, Hanover and Munich.

Bramwell Tovey conducting the New York Philharmonic in residency in Vail, Colorado, July 2009.

Our celebration concludes when the orchestra returns to Houston for Stravinsky’s The Firebird over Easter weekend. The program features one of Bernstein’s most ambitious works, his Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety, a profound meditation on faith in the modern world based on the poetry of W. H. Auden. Although Bernstein labeled the work a symphony, it could almost be considered a piano concerto thanks to that instrument’s prominent and demanding solo role. Internationally acclaimed pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet will join conductor Bramwell Tovey, one of Leonard Bernstein’s most successful students, for a special performance of this masterwork.

Tovey first met Bernstein in 1986 when he had to replace an ailing conductor for a London Symphony Orchestra concert at the last minute. “About half-way through the dress rehearsal there was this terrific rumpus in the back of the hall, flashing lightbulbs, and this great celebrity-composer-genius walked in with a silk scarf, cigarette, an entourage, and of course the press literally hanging on his every word,” Tovey recounted. “He came straight up to me and said, ‘I know how you feel, because I stepped in when I was a young man. I’m here to support you.’” After watching the rehearsal, that same day Bernstein told the press that Tovey was “marvelous…he is a great hero of mine now. I mean, I never met him before this morning, but he’s become one of the great people of my life.”

“He really enabled my career that night to have a tremendous launch,” Tovey said. Tovey went on to study with Bernstein at Boston’s Tanglewood Festival, gaining great insight into the master’s approach to music. It would be hard to find a better interpreter for Bernstein. —Calvin Dotsey

You can watch footage of Bernstein and Tovey working together during a rehearsal in this video:

Join the Houston Symphony’s Bernstein celebration at Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe (February 2, 3 & 4), Andrés Conducts Dvořák 7 (February 15, 17 & 18), Hilary Hahn Celebrates Bernstein (23, 24 & 25) and Stravinsky’s Firebird (March 29, 30 & 31). For tickets and more information, visit www.houstonsymphony.org.

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