REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood

by Barbara Waldinger

Excellent photo coverage at Broadway World.

A sold-out crowd (both shed and lawn) at Tanglewood Music Center paid homage to native son Leonard Bernstein on the centennial of his birth Saturday, August 25 (proclaimed LEONARD BERNSTEIN DAY by Governor Charles D. Baker).  The occasion was celebrated by a star-studded performance by such celebrities as host Audra McDonald, conductors Andris Nelsons (entering his fifth season as the BSO’s Music Director), Christoph Eschenbach, Keith Lockhart, Michael Tilson Thomas and John Williams, musicians Midori and Yo-Yo Ma, and New York Metropolitan Opera singers Susan Graham and Thomas Hampson.  The program featured a selection of Bernstein’s own compositions in the first half, and favorites he conducted in the second, interspersed with video memories from his colleagues, family and friends.

When Bernstein was accepted as a conducting student to the Tanglewood Music Center in 1940 (first conceived as the Berkshire Music Center by Serge Koussevitzky), he began a remarkable fifty-year association with this magical place he loved.  In the early 1950s Bernstein was named head of the orchestra and conducting programs at Tanglewood, a position he maintained even while leading the New York Philharmonic.  Koussevitzky considered Bernstein “to be the most outstanding and exceptionally endowed musician of the young generation in this country.  Bernstein is an extraordinary conductor, a brilliant pianist, and a remarkably gifted composer.”  His other mentor and lifelong friend, composer Aaron Copland, described Bernstein as “one of the most fabulously gifted musicians I’ve ever encountered.”  After a week-long celebration in 1988 for Bernstein’s 70th birthday, the ailing conductor gave his final concert at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990, including Copland’s Third and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphonies.

His centennial, like the 70th birthday gala, featuring many of the same luminaries, was a night to remember.  The parking lots and the lawn were nearly filled two hours before the event, and a visit to the rest rooms required careful planning to navigate the lines.  As for the weather:  Bernstein’s brother Burton commented that whenever Lenny conducted at Tanglewood, threatening skies cleared—with the exception of his final concert when, mirroring the pall occasioned by the maestro’s illness, the weather turned cold and rainy.  Saturday night the weather was gorgeous, reinforcing Nelsons’ observation that Bernstein’s spirit still remains at Tanglewood.

The first half of the Centennial Celebration featured the first movement of Bernstein’s Serenade (with Midori on violin), and selections from his Third Symphony, Kaddish (sung in Hebrew by soprano Nadine Sierra and the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus) and his Mass (with Kian Soltani playing the cello).  But for many in the audience the highlights were the overture to Candide, with the huge Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nelsons with great speed and high energy, and a medley from West Side Story that brought the enormous crowd to its feet. Led by Broadway’s Tony Yazbeck (as Tony), the Jets and the Sharks (in costume), Maria (Isabel Leonard) and Anita (Jessica Vosk) came to life, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, who miraculously found room for the performers to dance on a stage chock full of BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus musicians.  All joined the gangs in the familiar finger-snapping that accompanied the well-loved music.

The second half of the program featured selections by Mahler, whose music Bernstein particularly championed, including a rendition of The Sentry’s Night Song, sublimely performed by Thomas Hampson;  the finale of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which was conducted by Bernstein on many occasions; the world premiere of a piece by John Williams entitled “Highwood’s Ghost,” (Highwood being an old reputedly haunted house on the Tanglewood campus), specifically composed for Jessica Zhou on harp, Yo-Yo Ma on cello and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra; and the finale from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, powerfully sung by Nadine Sierra, Susan Graham, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Audra McDonald’s commentary, credited to Stephen Wadsworth, was delivered with passion and empathy for Bernstein, who, she observed, was a mass of contradictions:  as tormented as he was blessed, as lonely and sad as he was exuberant.  He had to reconcile his utopian view with our dystopian reality—to which she added:  “Sound familiar?”  That was not the only political comment of the evening.

In a video, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas urged that in this time of anger and confusion in our country, we should thank Bernstein for the beautiful music that still reminds us of the truths we hold dear.  And McDonald spoke of the baton that has been passed down to us from Bernstein, teaching us to engage with the world around us; to believe that morality, politics and art can work together.  He hated injustice and always held out hope for how things could be, a sentiment that Mahler expressed in Resurrection:

“O believe, my heart, but believe:  Nothing will be lost to you!  Yours is what you longed for, Yours what you loved, What you fought for!”

“O believe:  You were not born in vain!  You have not lived in vain, nor suffered!”

McDonald:  “As long as there are sentient beings on this planet there will be a place for you, Leonard Bernstein.”

Indeed, as an encore to this glorious evening, Nelsons led the orchestra and singers in an emotional rendition of Bernstein’s There’s a Place for Us from West Side Story.

Those who missed this memorable performance will have the opportunity to see it on PBS December 28, 2018.  How fortunate that it will live on for posterity, as does the legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

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