Bernstein’s Best

To celebrate Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday, performing arts organizations around the world—and especially in California—will give thousands of performances of his music this season.

Leonard Bernstein in Hollywood, 1944, with portable typewriter.
Leonard Bernstein in Hollywood, 1944, with portable typewriter.

Leonard Bernstein was the quintessential East Coast American musician. Harvard-trained. Darling of Broadway. The New York Philharmonic’s most iconic music director. His music defined the 20th century. Born in Massachusetts during the final months of World War I, he died in New York City in 1990­.

Bernstein would have turned 100 this Aug. 25. To celebrate, performing arts organizations around the world will give thousands of performances of Bernstein’s music this season. Among those performances, more than 100 take place in California. According to the official “Leonard Bernstein at 100” website, that’s more than the number of performances of his works this season in New York and Massachusetts combined.

So why is California just about the best place to experience the composer-conductor’s centenary? One reason is that two of California’s most prominent conductors are ¾ each in their own ways ¾ ideal ambassadors for Bernstein’s music.

While many of today’s composers claim Bernstein as a mentor, San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas is widely recognized as his true protege. Tilson Thomas and Bernstein met in 1968 and soon thereafter developed a close personal relationship that continued until Bernstein’s death. Tilson Thomas’ educational program “Keeping the Score” is very much a 21st-century continuation of Bernstein’s famed “Young People’s Concerts.” And Tilson Thomas took a hands-on approach to programming San Francisco’s extensive 2017-2018 season Bernstein centenary concerts, which include a concert performance of “Candide” as well as deeper cuts, such as “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs.”

The LA Philharmonic’s much younger music director, Gustavo Dudamel, did not know Bernstein personally, but it is Dudamel’s conducting style that New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote in 2008 “stirs memories of Bernstein at his most dynamic.” Like Bernstein, Dudamel is handsome, charismatic, great on TV and popular in both classical and mainstream music circles.

But what of the music itself? There are elements of both Bernstein’s Broadway scores and his more serious concert music that can come across as passe to millennial ears. Bernstein’s cheery jazz riffs and melodramatic symphonic tunes sometimes sound dated.

Despite the 20th-century musical idioms, Bernstein’s best music still resonates. Beneath the gloss of 1960s glam, his scores seethe with universal, human and distinctly American themes. In “West Side Story,” issues of immigration, prejudice and gun violence feel as pertinent today as ever. In the enigmatic “Candide,” the question of whether or not We The People can or should be optimistic about our future will likely never age. And when it comes to love, heartache, life and death ¾ those most fundamental and universal of themes ¾ Bernstein poured his vulnerable soul into his scores. Ultimately, it is that vulnerability that translates, from Bernstein’s baton to Dudamel’s, from New York to San Francisco and from his century to ours.


Bernstein 100 Performances in California

LA Opera presents “Candide,” Jan. 27 through Feb. 18: Kelsey Grammer makes his operatic debut in this production of Bernstein’s classic dark comedy. James Conlon conducts.

The LA Philharmonic presents Bernstein’s “Mass,” Feb. 1 through Feb. 4: Gustavo Dudamel leads a huge orchestra, two choirs and a marching band at Disney Hall through Bernstein’s highly dramatic take on the traditional Mass.

The Valley Performing Arts Center presents “On the Waterfront.” Feb. 24: A screening of “On the Waterfront” in Northridge presented with live musical accompaniment of Bernstein’s score by the New West Symphony.


The Bernstein Centenary

    L.A.-based pianist turned writer Catherine Womack covers classical music and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, Alta Journal, and more.
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