JULY 5, 2018 – Sixty years ago, Leonard Bernstein took the stage at Carnegie Hall to conduct one of his earliest Young People’s Concerts, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s pioneering series to introduce classical music to a new generation.
The concert on Feb. 28, 1958, was just a few weeks after the 39-year-old maestro assumed his new position as music director of the world-renowned orchestra. He was the first Jewish American-born and educated conductor to lead a major American symphony.
“What makes music funny?” Bernstein asked his eager audience.
He followed with an ironic joke about an elephant and a mouse. Humor, even in music, needs an element of surprise, said Bernstein. “It’s like a bag full of tricks coming at you,” and always has “something new and eye opening,” he said.
Interspersed with his entertaining and enlightening remarks, Bernstein led the orchestra in musical selections from Haydn to Gilbert and Sullivan, Prokofiev, and Brahms.
Broadcast on national television from 1958 to 1972, Bernstein’s concerts reached beyond the music hall into America’s living rooms, attracting a huge and devoted following.
For 14 years, Bernstein delivered a total of 53 live performances of the Young People’s series. He would later describe the concerts as “among my favorite, most highly prized activities of my life.”
On Friday, Aug. 10, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will feature a Young People’s Concert at Tanglewood, the BSO’s summer home in Lenox, known for its sprawling lawns and vistas of the Berkshire Hills.
The concert is part of a worldwide celebration known as Bernstein at 100, marking the centennial of his birth on Aug. 25, 1918, in Lawrence. Bernstein, who died in 1990, was the oldest son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants Jenny and Samuel Bernstein.
The Tanglewood season boasts a tantalizing array of Bernstein-related programs that highlight his works for theater and film, and a rich range of his orchestral compositions.
The homage to Bernstein’s signature Young People’s Concerts will be hosted by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein and conducted by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons. The one-hour program includes musician interviews and audience participation.
“Bernstein’s long relationship with the BSO and Tanglewood defines the 50-year arc of his musical life,” said Anthony Fogg, artistic director of the BSO and director of Tanglewood. In the summer of 1940, Bernstein was in the first class of Berkshire Music Center fellows, now the Tanglewood Music Festival. Over the next five decades, Bernstein, whose flamboyant flair has become part of Tanglewood lore, remained a devoted teacher in the prestigious summer training ground. He touched the lives of hundreds of young musicians, Fogg observed.
“If you meet any of the fellows who were part of the orchestra when he conducted them … they remember exactly what they had learned from him. He was a profound teacher,” Fogg said.
The link with Bernstein continues. Stefan Asbury, who studied with Bernstein in his last teaching season, now leads the Tanglewood Music Center’s conducting program.
Bernstein fans who can’t make it to the Berkshires can still enjoy the weekend concerts, which will be broadcast live on WCRB, 99.5 FM, and hosted by Ron Della Chiesa.
Among the Bernstein-related programs is the opening weekend production of “On the Town,” Bernstein’s first Broadway musical, on Saturday, July 7. It will feature music by the Boston Pops, conducted by Keith Lockhart.
On July 21, BSO flutist Elizabeth Rowe will be the soloist for “Halil,” a somber work Bernstein wrote in memory of Yadin Tanenbaum, a young Israeli flute player who was killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Brian McCreath, longtime producer of the live WCRB broadcasts, anticipates a “knockout performance” at the annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial concert on Sunday, Aug. 19, by the young musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. This year’s program, conducted by Nelsons with Yo-Yo Ma on cello, includes a world premiere of “Highwood’s Ghost” by John Williams.