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Tuesday, November 07, 2017 3:03pm

Bernstein at 100

Leonard bernstein - credit Paul de Heuck.jpg

Leonard Bernstein at work with children Jamie and Alex looking on.

Leonard Bernstein at work with children Jamie and Alex looking on

‘My father’s essential approach to music was one of celebration,’ wrote the composer’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein. ‘It was about making the most of all that was beautiful in sound, which itself so deeply celebrates the best aspects of our own humanity.’  


On August 25th 2018 Leonard Bernstein would have been 100. Lenny, as he was universally known, died in New York in 1990 and, given his zest for life, he would probably have thrown one hell of a party in Manhattan.  So, next year, appropriately, to mark this iconoclast’s centenary, the whole musical world will be celebrating big time.


At the ASO, we are honouring Bernstein’s life and music in several concerts. First up in March, is a performance of his Serenade after Plato’s Symposium (Master 1 - Organ Symphony). Ostensibly, this sounds a bit dry but the inspiration and the content are far from it. Naturally, it is inspired by yet another party or banquet, aka a ‘symposium’.  It is hosted by Plato who has invited a starry guest list of Greek philosophers – Socrates, Aristophanes et al - for a Bacchic night of food, wine and talk in praise of Eros and Aphrodite. This jazz-inspired music is 100% Bernstein – full of melody, colour, humour and dazzling virtuosity for both solo violin and orchestra alike.


At the other end of the year, the ASO closes its season with an equally celebratory masterpiece by Bernstein, his Chichester Psalms (Master 10 - Freedom & Joy). It is one of Bernstein’s most enduring works for the concert hall.  This idiosyncratic setting of Hebrew psalms is both infectious in pleasure and invigorating in spirit. ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!’ sings the chorus.  It is this ecstatic affirmation of human existence which resonates so well with the spirit of the music that we have programmed with it: Beethoven’s Choral symphony.  This is the genre-busting, revolutionary symphony which Bernstein famously conducted when the Berlin Wall came a tumbling down in 1989.  And who other than Leonard Bernstein would have had the sheer chutzpah to rewrite Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy?  Lenny seized the zeitgeist:  he changed Freude (Joy) to Freiheit (Freedom) and made a little bit of history.


Leonard Bernstein not only conducted, he also played the piano brilliantly and talked about music compellingly. His Young People’s Concerts on CBS TV of the 1950s were way ahead of the curve. Catch them on YouTube today - they remain masterly.



And, of course, Bernstein composed. He wrote symphonies, concertos and ballets and he is the musical genius who gave us West Side Story, Candide, On the Town, Wonderful Town and many more Broadway musicals. To mark that facet of his musical personality, the Bernstein protégé, conductor John Mauceri has curated a concert for the ASO called Bernstein on Stage!  ‘The tunes themselves…make or break a show score….,’claimed Bernstein, acknowledging that penning a memorable song was a bit different to writing a symphony. Bernstein’s genius was that he was able to do both.

Leonard Bernstein with John Mauceri

Leonard Bernstein with John Mauceri

I was fortunate to hear Leonard Bernstein conduct once.  It was a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with his beloved Vienna Philharmonic at the BBC Proms in 1987. Bernstein was not in great health. Even now, thirty years later, I can still see him walking heavily down the bull-run onto the Royal Albert Hall stage and struggling to get onto the podium. But once the music began, Bernstein’s advancing years and his declining health vanished. Miraculously, the music consumed him as he sashayed and sailed through the symphony. ‘If I don't become Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky when I'm conducting their works,’ wrote Bernstein, ‘then it won't be a great performance.’  It was one of Bernstein’s last great performances at the Proms.


Perhaps Bernstein did have an ego which was ever so slightly bigger than Western Australia, but he also possessed a profound and immeasurable musical generosity.  He had an irresistible need to share his love of music with everybody. And, on that warm September night in London in 1987, Bernstein’s generosity came shining through, as for a few precious moments we all got a little closer to Gustav Mahler. 


For that, and for your extraordinary musical legacy, thank you Leonard Bernstein.


Written by Simon Lord, ASO Director of Artistic Planning.


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