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Tanglewood's Bernstein Celebration Was a Spectacular Tribute
By Stephen Dankner, Guest Column
11:32AM / Monday, August 27, 2018
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Leonard Bernstein, seen here in 1990, was honored at Tanglewood on Aug. 25 - what would have been his 100th birthday.

Certainly by now, lovers of classical music know that this summer marked Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday. Celebrations throughout the world are legion, with Tanglewood at the epicenter for performances of the maestro's music – both his own and of the signature compositions of others for which he is beloved as America's greatest conductor.

And on the anniversary of the actual date of his birth - Aug. 25 - Tanglewood created a singular, spectacular event celebrating all the aspects of the musical life of the man known to all as "Lenny."

From "Fancy Free" to "On the Town" to the "Jeremiah' Symphony No. 1" and "The Age of Anxiety  Symphony No. 2," from the operetta "Candide" and the film score to "On the Waterfront," from the groundbreaking musical "West Side Story" to "Mass," Bernstein  bequeathed to us a large and universally loved repertory of inspired music. Composing was his dominant calling, and he pursued its siren song throughout his life. Yet, he possessed other, wondrous talents and followed other voices that beckoned whenever he felt the need to share his love of music. He was among only a handful of 20th century genius-level virtuosi/orchestra conductors who led the world's great symphonies, probing the profundities of the canonical works composed by the classical masters – Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms – all of them. In this he was our spiritual guide, and was, even in the exalted circle of Maestros, unlike no other.

Inseparable from his conducting was his love of teaching – whether on TV via a "Young People's Concert,” or mentoring Tanglewood conductor Fellows one-on-one on how to clearly telegraph an anacrusis in a Schumann orchestral overture – Lenny, who understood music from the inside out, always had the definitive answer.

With deepest admiration, one feels impelled to go on and on – to discover everything possible about this unique musical mind, this enlightened soul, and then to passionately extol to others the force of personality that was Lenny - this embodiment of love enveloped in a skein of wisdom. The more I learn about him, the more I hunger to know; his many selves intertwined to such an extent that I feel I must have missed something – even some obscure and insignificant factoid I hunger to glean - that will exalt him still further in the musical pantheon I have created for him in my mind.

But enough; obsession aside, each of us will cherish his memory in our own ways and to our own extents.

If a single place or institution can be said to have nurtured Bernstein – that is, created the man, musician and personality – it was at Tanglewood. Bernstein's close relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra extends from the time he became a protégé of Serge Koussevitsky -  that legendary BSO conductor as a member of the first Tanglewood Music Center Class in 1940, until the final concerts he conducted with the BSO and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1990.

Today, Tanglewood remembers and celebrates the essence of Bernstein. With that in mind, the Boston Symphony, which oversees Tanglewood activities, planned a fitting tribute on his birthday.

And what an event it was! For this landmark gala concert, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and guest musicians were conducted by five prominent conductors from the BSO family and Bernstein extended family tree: BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, Boston Pops Conductor Laureate John Williams, Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart, San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas and National Symphony Orchestra Conductor Laureate Christoph Eschenbach.

Host/vocalist Audra McDonald was joined on the stage by guest artists violinist Midori, cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Kian Soltani, singers Nadine Sierra, Susan Graham, Isabel Leonard, Thomas Hampson, Jessica Vosk and Tony Yazbeck, with James Darrah serving as director, and Joshua Bergasse the choreographer.

For this special concert, members of the New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Pacific Music Festival, and Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival - all ensembles that were important to Bernstein and his career - joined the BSO.

This multimedia event also included video montages about Bernstein's extraordinary life, and video messages from performing and creative artists around the world who have been inspired by Bernstein's extraordinary legacy as a musician and as a dominant cultural figure of his time.

Among the many musical highlights brilliantly performed were Bernstein's "Candide" Overture and selections from his iconic score to "West Side Story," as well as a new composition by John Williams written especially for the Bernstein centennial and inspired in part by a memory the composer had of walking through Tanglewood's Highwood Manor House with Bernstein, who declared, "This place is haunted!" Public Broadcasting's "Great Performances" recorded the performance for worldwide distribution in December.

At the conclusion of the "Resurrection" Symphony finale, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus joined with members of the Boston Symphony, host/vocalist Audra McDonald and the massive, overflowing audience in a rousing encore sing-along performance of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story."

Tanglewood was proud to present this officially designated birthday concert by the Leonard Bernstein Office; all three Bernstein children - Jamie Bernstein, Alexander Bernstein and Nina Bernstein Simmons - were in attendance.

There were many concert highlights to cherish - performances that were stunningly beautiful, such as violinist Midori's interpretation of Bernstein's "Serenade." Her sweet violin tone infused the sensuous melodies with almost palpable warmth. Similarly, Kian Soltani's cello luxuriated in the opulence of the "Meditation No. 3" – an exotic rhapsody.

Bernstein's talent for creating sumptuous vocal music was also on display, with Nadine Sierra's lush soprano expertly negotiating the intensity of the serrated vocal line in the second part of Bernstein's Symphony No. 2. ("Kaddish").  For contrast, baritone Thomas Hampson, a Bernstein protégé, exuded both strength and charm in his performance of Mahler's "Der Schilwache Nachlied" from"Das Knaben Wunderhorn."

Five numbers from the semi-staged "West Side Story" were, of course, an audience favorite. Isabel Leonard and Jessica Vosk created an outstanding duet as Maria and Anita, while Tony Yazbeck, in the eponymous role of Tony, was a standout. Clyde Alves and DJ Petrosino as Riff and Bernardo were also perfectly cast, as were Ryan Ghysels, Christpher Rice, Alex Ringler, Clay Thompson as Jets gang members, and Will Koffel, Daniel Lichtenfeld, Jonathan Vanderwoude, Matt Weaver and Andrew Wilkins as appropriately threatening Sharks gang members. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was clearly in his big band jazz element – the knife-edged, staccato rhythms seeming to jump from the pages in the score, cleaving the cool, moist night air.

And the multitudes (17,000 in the Shed and on the lawn) gave out with a bellow of a unison roar when BSO Maestro Andris Nelsons almost jumped into the air – Bernstein-like – at the conclusion of the evening's curtain raiser, the irrepressible and incandescent overture to "Candide" - five minutes of sheer, joyous musical heaven.

It was all for you, Lenny. We will love you always!

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