Fort Worth — Leonard Bernstein, born 100 years ago this week, defined classical music in America. Not only is he the composer of hundreds of iconic themes, from Broadway to Hollywood to concert halls, but also he was the arbiter of how Americans from World War II to the present day understand and accept classical repertoire. His essays and lectures simplified our understanding of the music. And even without the educational point of reference, his panache and charisma is still the enduring image of how a conductor should look and act.
The DFW Metroplex is starting its yearlong celebration of his life this month with a three-day Bernstein Festival from the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. The celebration continues in November with Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s A Bernstein Tribute. Myriad other groups, including Verdigris Ensemble, are chiming in by including Bernstein’s music on their concert playlists.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Musical Director of the Fort Worth Symphony, is keenly aware of the wonderful opportunity that the Centenary brings. “I’ve been looking forward to this celebration for 25 years. There will only be one 100th anniversary,” he jokes during a recent interview. “If you miss this one, there will not be another.”
But he also recognizes how difficult it will be to capture the enormous importance and personality of a man like Bernstein in a short series of concerts. “It is a tremendous responsibility to be directing this celebration with all the excitement that still exists about Bernstein. For me,” Harth-Bedoya says, “the problem is not what [of Bernstein’s music] to include but what to leave out. There are so many great pieces and only so much concert time.”
Centenary celebrations are tricky things, especially when focused on a conductor and composer who was so active and visible right up to his death just over a quarter century ago. This is especially true when the subject had the larger-than-life, everywhere-you-look fascination and charisma that made him such a seminal figure in American culture. Prior to Bernstein’s influence, Classical music in the United States was considered stodgy or intimidating. The great conductors before him, like Toscanini or Stokowski, were very foreign which gave an air of mystery and ritual to the performances. Symphonic music was for the elite.
Along came brash, dynamic and engaging Leonard Bernstein, a man you might find sharing a sandwich with his co-artists in a corner deli in Greenwich Village as easily as you would on a podium. He was a swashbuckler, elegant but approachable, transcendent in his musicality but down to earth in his emotionality. He didn’t treat classical music as some sort of divine mystery but rather opened it up as something everyone could enjoy, sharing his knowledge and rapport in every medium from his famous Young Person’s Concerts to the Norton Lectures on how to listen to classical music to cameo appearances on television shows like Laugh In or even Sesame Street. Some of his Broadway musicals, including West Side Story and On the Town, were immensely popular, groundbreaking but also hummable. He was a multimedia star. In so doing, he made music seem less a sacred ritual and more a conversation. People listened because, quite frankly, he had the It Factor.
Harth-Bedoya has been aware of the great shadow that Bernstein cast over all of American music since he himself arrived at the Curtis Institute from Peru in the late 1980’s. “Bernstein of course is one of the prominent names associated with the Institute so we heard about him all the time. But he is also so important in all of American music.” Although Harth-Bedoya never had the opportunity to see Bernstein live, he feels the Maestro’s influence all the time. “He was the first great American conductor. His exploring nature and curiosity set the tone for conductors who followed him and were taught by him. ”
So how will the local orchestras and choruses express and commemorate Bernstein’s iconic dynamism? For the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s program, Harth-Bedoya feels the best way is through Bernstein’s music. Bernstein’s works are incredibly varied and evocative—ranging from larruping comedy to exquisite sorrow often in the course of a single composition. “We will try to put pieces in a context with some talking but really, for Bernstein, the music was the most important thing,” Harth-Bedoya explains. “It did not matter whether he was conducting his own pieces or another composer’s works. It didn’t matter if Bernstein was lecturing or talking about world politics, it was always through the message of music. Even when he was writing for Broadway or for Hollywood, the music was greater than the genre.”
“We are organizing our concerts to show the variety of roles and voices that Bernstein’s pieces contains. In one concert we have the introspective and emotional Bernstein. A second one show the jazzy side, including his amazing film music. Our final concert, designed to cover as much ground as possible, focuses on his vocal music, including his later compositions where he dared to take a chance on unusual texts and settings.” The orchestra is trying to encapsulate the broad range of talents in a short time.
Other cultural groups in Dallas are incorporating a more didactic approach. Part of the Dallas Symphony’s solution is to include in its celebration a seminar with Jamie Bernstein, the maestro’s daughter and author of a book Famous Father Girl. KERA already has replayed the Young Children’s Concerts and other excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s magnificently documented career are bound to follow. Verdigris will perform excerpts from his correspondence set to music, Chichester Psalms and music from lesser-known musicals like Peter Pan and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. These types of programs, as well as efforts to put the performances in some sort of perspective with regards to Bernstein’s life and image, will be essential in fully commemorating the entire force of his greatness.
In the 25 years since Bernstein’s death, his immense influence has not diminished. As is evidenced by Harth-Bedoya’s enthusiasm, today’s conducting stars still feel a strong connection and influence even if separated by a generation. It is very clear that North Texas audiences will be treated to a wonderful and rich musical feast that should not be missed.
Like its subject, each event will be one-of-a-kind.
» This is the first article on TheaterJones about the Bernstein centenary. In the coming weeks and months, look for interviews with artists participating in the various local celebrations.