APRIL 26, 2018 – Local fans of Leonard Bernstein may associate him with his career-long connection with Tanglewood.
The charismatic conductor, pianist, composer, and educator, who is being celebrated here and around the globe during the centennial year of his birth, was a student at the Berkshire Music Center in its inaugural 1940 class. He studied at Tanglewood under Serge Koussevitzky, who became a mentor. For the next half century, Bernstein taught and performed at Tanglewood nearly every season.
But the first live orchestra Bernstein ever heard was the Boston Pops. It was the spring of 1932. Legendary Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler conducted a concert of Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro,” and Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Bernstein, then 14, recalled sitting in the audience, sipping lemonade, and savoring every minute of the momentous occasion.
“To me, in those days, the Pops was heaven itself … I thought … it was the supreme achievement of the human race.” He never imagined that one day he would raise his own baton and conduct the orchestra.
Bernstein, the Lawrence-born son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants, shared that vivid childhood memory on June 8, 1964, when he conducted the Pops at Symphony Hall for the first time in a concert for the 25th reunion of his Harvard graduating class.
This spring, in a tribute to the maestro, Pops conductor Keith Lockhart will lead the world-renown orchestra of popular music in a series of Symphony Hall shows that feature Bernstein’s music. From May 11 through June 16, the Pops will present a Bernstein centennial tribute; a semi-staged production of “On the Town,” Bernstein’s first Broadway hit; and the music of “West Side Story,” his most well-known and popular music. The Pops also will perform “On the Town” at Tanglewood (July 7).
“There’s a lot of reasons to celebrate Bernstein in Boston. Bernstein was one of the most recognized and possibly the most important musicians of the 20th century,” Lockhart told the Journal, noting that Bernstein was one of the first American-born classically trained conductors.
Before Bernstein, who was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, conductors and performers were European born and educated. The young American-born Bernstein “was a breakout,” Lockhart said.
Bernstein’s deep Jewish roots in Boston were instrumental in his music, according to Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna, author of “The Jews of Boston,” who spoke recently, along with Joshua Jacobson, professor of music at Northeastern, at a Boston Symphony Orchestra panel on religion and spirituality in Bernstein’s music.
Bernstein’s family belonged to Boston’s Congregation Mishkan Tefila, where the young Leonard came under the influence of Solomon Braslavsky, a Viennese composer who became the synagogue’s music director and led its choir. Over the years, he corresponded with Braslavsky and in October 1946, Bernstein wrote, “I have come to realize what a debt I really owe to you … for the marvelous music at Mishkan Tefila services. They surpass any that I have ever heard.”
This season’s centennial tribute concerts will draw from across Bernstein’s repertoire, including his film score for “On the Waterfront,” some of his classical concert compositions, and songs from his biggest Broadway show, Lockhart said. The singers lined up are Matthew Anderson, Teresa Winner Blume, Aimee Doherty, David McFerrin, and Andrew Tighe.
The breadth of Bernstein’s musical contribution was his most striking characteristic, Lockhart observed. “When you celebrate him, you celebrate the totality of his personality and what he meant for music in general,” he said.