Celebrating the Centennial of West Side Story and Wonderful Town Composer Leonard Bernstein | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Celebrating the Centennial of West Side Story and Wonderful Town Composer Leonard Bernstein The celebratory performances of the legendary Tony-winning composer’s work kick off September 19.

Throughout history, the artists who nudge things forward are the “synthesizers,” the ones who bring together seemingly disparate styles to form something startlingly new. In music, Mozart fused styles he absorbed during his early travels through Italy, France, England, and German-speaking lands. Later, the Beatles gathered elements of postwar restlessness, American blues, and (thanks to the symphonically trained George Martin) classical traditions to create sounds we’d never heard before.

Leonard Bernstein, whose 100th birthday in 2018 is being cheered worldwide, was the type of artist who—like Mozart or the bands of the British invasion—took a sweeping look at everything around him and proceeded to place a personal stamp on all he touched. For in addition to his almost unequaled prowess as a conductor and (to some extent) pianist, Bernstein the composer found ways to fuse classical, jazz, liturgical traditions, and the tuneful exuberance of Tin Pan Alley to forge a distinctly American style of music that was utterly new and fresh.


During the 2017-2018 season The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin pay homage to the composer-conductor with a commemoration that includes music from a wide range of genres and styles as well as works by other composers that help put Bernstein’s music in perspective. The celebration strives to be as all-encompassing as Bernstein himself, with a series of concert works throughout the season—orchestral suites from his only film score, On the Waterfront (September 19 and October 5), and West Side Story (October 5); the Serenade featuring violinist Hilary Hahn (December 7–10); the Second Symphony (“Age of Anxiety”) with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (March 16–18); and the Chichester Psalms (April 5–10)—in addition to a concert performance of West Side Story (October 12–15), a European tour featuring Bernstein’s music, and a Family Concert hosted by the composer’s daughter Jamie (February 3). The latter is an homage to the conductor whose Young People’s Concerts ushered in a new approach to inspiring children’s interest in music: Jamie Bernstein will guide young people and their families through some of her father’s works, including the ballet Fancy Free and the Overture to the operetta Candide.

To some extent the Orchestra’s Bernstein commemoration already began during the 2014–2015 season, and it will continue through at least the 2018–2019 season. “It all started with Bernstein’s Mass, which we did a few years ago,” said Yannick of the moment that began his own journey with the composer. “This was such an important event, and where I fell in love with his music. So we are continuing the exploration of the vocal music with one of his masterpieces … which is West Side Story. It will be a rare occasion and opportunity to hear it really complete, every note that he wrote for that score, in a rare concert performance.

“We’ll also have choral music, the Chichester Psalms, and we’re going to continue the complete symphony cycle, which is now featuring the Second Symphony … which is also like a piano concerto.” The performances of the Second are part of a multi-season look at the composer’s symphonies, which began this past May with the First and concludes in 2018–2019 with the Third (“Kaddish”).

One of the most brilliant music minds that America has produced, Leonard Bernstein (born August 25, 1918) distinguished himself through the breadth of his gifts—as a pianist, conductor, composer, and educator. He was the first American-born music director of the New York Philharmonic and the first American to rise to prominence on the podiums of several international orchestras. “He was unrelenting in his dedication and doggedly devoted to uncovering the composer’s true intent,” writes Baltimore Symphony Music Director Marin Alsop, a Bernstein student. “This willingness and desire to re-examine every piece of music, to bring a fresh approach and new insights to every performance of a work, set Bernstein apart from everyone else.”

As a composer Bernstein shook the very foundations of both opera and the Broadway musical with theatre works that fused elements of both genres—West Side Story, On the Town, Candide. At the same time he became one of the first American composers to bring popular elements into “serious” symphonic works. This was perhaps a natural outgrowth of his early intellectual curiosity, which would ultimately embrace everything from the new energy of jazz and Broadway and the Old World sensibilities he learned at Harvard University and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.

His father, Samuel, was a Ukrainian immigrant who hoped his son would take over the family’s beauty-supply business in Lawrence, Massachusetts—though neither he nor Leonard’s mother, Jennie, actively discouraged the boy’s path as soon as his keen gifts for music became evident.

At Harvard the young Bernstein studied with advocates of centuries-old principles of harmony and counterpoint, especially Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston. The latter’s rigorous approach to musical texture would stay with Bernstein through his life. At Curtis he studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova, composition with Randall Thompson, and conducting with Fritz Reiner. Though some of Bernstein’s biographers have described his early experiences in Philadelphia as somewhat trying, there was no question that his Curtis education—and especially his contact with Reiner, who left an indelible impression—was instrumental in propelling his career forward. At the Tanglewood Music Center he became a protégé of Serge Koussevitzsky, who remained a Bernstein advocate for many years and whose musicianship left a deep mark on the young conductor’s world-view.


Completing his formal education in 1942, Bernstein worked for a music publisher arranging and transcribing popular tunes for publication as sheet music. It was during this time (on November 14, 1943) that he was called upon, at late notice, to fill in for Bruno Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic. Having just been appointed assistant conductor of the Philharmonic by Artur Rodzinski earlier that season, Bernstein “went through the ordeal with no signs of strain or nervousness,” according to an article on the front page of the New York Times the following day.

In the coming years Bernstein would conduct a wide range of other orchestras, especially (in America) the Boston Symphony, the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, and the National Symphony. From 1948 through 1979 he was a semi-frequent guest conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra, in a series of concerts that began with a subscription performance—in which Bernstein performed the Ravel G-major Concerto conducting from the keyboard—and culminated with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in August 1979 at the Mann Center.

The Orchestra’s season also includes a series of intelligent combinations of Bernstein’s music with that of other composers: His “Age of Anxiety” Symphony appears on a program with other works focused on angst and self-doubt (Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote), and the Chichester Psalms are paired with Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices, a “crowd-sourced” work that forms part of the Orchestra’s Community Commissions initiative. Both of the latter works, somewhat like the Mass, reveal something of the all-encompassing world-view that Bernstein helped move forward, and which American composers today continue to strive toward.

In fact one of Bernstein’s most enduring legacies may be his role in breaking down barriers between popular and “high” music—between gritty American populism and the powerful influences of the European canon. “His love affair with Europe and his sensitivity to his Russian and Jewish roots are never far from his lyrical expressivity,” writes the conductor and critic John Mauceri, “with its fragile sense of optimism, its loneliness, its humor, and its demand for acceptance. All of this is wrapped in the rhythmic propulsion of a great American urban landscape.”

—Paul Horsley is performing arts editor of the Independent in Kansas City and writes for several publications nationwide. During the 1990s he was program annotator and musicologist for The Philadelphia Orchestra and subsequently served as music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star.

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