By John Fleming
LENOX, Mass. – The spirit of Leonard Bernstein has been in the air everywhere as the music world celebrates the great conductor-composer’s birth 100 years ago on Aug. 25. More than 2,000 events have taken place around the globe to commemorate his legacy in the past year. Nowhere has the celebration been more resonant than at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer festival and school in the beautiful Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
Growing up in Boston, Bernstein went to concerts at Symphony Hall, and after graduating from Harvard he participated in Tanglewood’s first conducting class in 1940. Once his meteoric career took off he was a prominent presence at the festival most summers.
“The summer I worked there, I observed how Daddy’s arrival turned the place into an adulation machine,” writes Jamie Bernstein, the conductor’s daughter, in her intimate, insightful memoir, Famous Father Girl, about having a summer job at Tanglewood. “Oh, how they carried on over him! His Sunday afternoon concert with the Boston Symphony attracted a huge mob; the lawn was packed with picnickers. It never rained on Daddy’s big concert days; the Tanglewood staff called it ‘Lenny weather.’ Daddy’s magic was on extra-bright display at Tanglewood, and I was seeing it up close in a way I never had before. He was a superstar up there.”
Fifty years after the first summer he spent at Tanglewood, Bernstein conducted his last concert there, on Aug. 19, 1990. His lungs ravaged from a life of heavy smoking, he was barely able to breathe but still managed to lead the BSO in a program that ended with a heroic account of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Less than two months later, he died from a heart attack in New York.
Given Bernstein’s central role in the history of Tanglewood, it figures that the festival has gone all out for its Bernstein Centennial Summer, presenting an array of his symphonic and chamber music, musical theater, ballet, and opera. The Aug. 18 program, with the BSO conducted by music director Andris Nelsons in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, was an eclectic slice of the Bernstein catalogue: Fancy Free, his jazzy ballet score from 1944; Divertimento for orchestra, which he composed for and dedicated to the BSO on its centenary in 1980; and the 1954 violin concerto Serenade, with soloist Baiba Skride.
Fancy Free was a treat, a 25-minute piece of popular dance music at its best, with an exuberant performance by seven members of the Boston Ballet, staged by Jean-Pierre Frohlich on a simple barroom set at stage right, with Nelsons and the orchestra pushed over to stage left. Sight lines in the Shed can be iffy, but from a seat about 15 rows back from the stage, I saw the ballet fine. Telling the story of three sailors on shore leave in New York and their pursuit of women, the score captures Bernstein in the flush of early stardom, not long after his legendary last-minute debut with the New York Philharmonic. It was his first work with choreographer Jerome Robbins, with whom he went on to make the classic Broadway musicals On the Town (inspired by Fancy Free and staged in July at Tanglewood) and West Side Story. The set of dance variations by the three sailors was a highlight, with Isaac Akiba’s flashy solo drawing rousing applause. Nelsons and the orchestra gave an alert account of the score, and pianist Vytas Baksys brought a delightful honky-tonk style to the ballet.
Bernstein the miniaturist is on display in Divertimento, which was a letdown in spite of the BSO knowing it so well. A grab bag of eight brief movements, it is stuffed with musical references and quotations, from the Radetzky March to a lovely waltz recalling Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique
It was fascinating to hear Bernstein’s Serenade for violin, string orchestra, harp, and percussion in an expert performance by the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride along with her fellow countryman Nelsons on the podium. Talk about multicultural mixing and matching – a soloist and conductor both from Latvia collaborating with an American orchestra on a concerto by an American composer who was inspired by a Greek philosopher (Plato’s Symposium). Bernstein the eternal progressive thinker would have loved it.
I first heard Serenade played by the New York Philharmonic’s then-concertmaster Glenn Dicterow some 30 years ago, and his performance convinced me that it is one of Bernstein’s most compelling concert works. Lately, in the hands of a new generation of violinists – this year I have heard the solo part interpreted by Augustin Hadelich with the Fort Worth Symphony and now Skride with the BSO – the concerto has taken on even more emotional depth and complexity for me. Skride met all the technical demands with deft virtuosity, but her performance also had a quality of serenity and composure that expressed the feeling of love that Bernstein intended to convey, as in the fourth movement’s delicate hymn for violin. Nelsons, intently crouched over the score but in frequent eye contact with Skride, was the perfect mediator between soloist and orchestra.
Skride (who has a new two-CD set for Orfeo called American Concertos that includes Serenade with the Gothenburg Symphony under Santtu-Matias Rouvali) will be performing the Bernstein concerto with the BSO and Nelsons on a European festivals tour in September.
Students in the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra have played their share of Bernstein this summer, and some of that work was showcased in a Prelude Concert of chamber music at Seiji Ozawa Hall. The program included his last completed composition, the funky Dance Suite for Brass Quintet (echoes of which were heard later in the brass play of Fancy Free and Divertimento), and the 1937 Piano Trio.
Tanglewood’s Bernstein celebration continues with a staging of Candide Aug. 22-23 and wraps up with a birthday bash on Aug. 25, with the BSO and a starry lineup of guest artists that includes Audra McDonald, Midori, Yo-Yo Ma, Susan Graham, and Thomas Hampson, ending with the finale of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.
John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Classical Voice North America, Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.