Few figures stand taller in American musical history than Leonard Bernstein. The BBC Music Magazine cited him as the second-greatest conductor ever in a 2011 poll of 100 top maestros. His accomplishments on the podium alone would have guaranteed him lasting fame. But Bernstein was also a landmark composer of both Broadway and classical music, ranging from his merry 1956 operetta Candide to his massive Mass, a multifaceted theatrical work commissioned for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. If all that weren’t enough, he was a pioneering educator whose televised Young People’s Concerts in 1958-72 with the New York Philharmonic set the standard of how to introduce classical music to children in an intelligent yet compelling way.
As part of its salute to the Bernstein centennial, the Ravinia Festival has programmed a series of concerts featuring the composer’s works, all curated by Marin Alsop, artistic director for the two-season celebration. On July 27, Alsop will be joined by Jamie Bernstein, Leonard’s oldest child and author of the memoir Famous Father Girl, for “Leonard Bernstein: Man for All Music.” Subtitled “A Musical Portrait in Symphony, Song and Story,” the program features the CSO in excerpts from his broad repertoire, with soloists ranging from young instrumental virtuosi Ifetayo Ali-Landing and Harmony Zhu to Met star Isabel Leonard alongside baritone Paulo Szot, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and tenor Nils Nilsen.
Recalling her early exposure to her father’s music, Bernstein said, “It came into our lives so young that sometimes my brother and sister and I say that West Side Story is like our fourth sibling, because it was just always there and we grew up with it. But I didn’t really focus on West Side Story and really absorb it entirely until I was older. When it came out my parents didn’t even take me see it on Broadway, because I was too young, and it was too intense with the knife fights, the gunshots and everything.”
As for why her father’s music remains as fresh and contemporary now as when it was written, she said, “All I can say is, it’s kind of a mystery. Why are some pieces indelible and others aren’t? There’s an element of magic to it that we cannot account for. Why are some people geniuses and others aren’t? I don’t know. But when it comes to West Side Story, it was just such an amazing alignment of the planets that these four unbelievably talented artists all came together at the same time to put this show together, and that every aspect of the show was at its optimum — not just the score but the book and the choreography and the direction and the lyrics and everything. All the elements came together in this magical way.”
Parts of this interview were published previously on Sounds and Stories.
TOP: Jamie Bernstein appears on “Chicago Tonight” last year, ahead of a Ravinia Festival tribute to her father. | Photo: WTTW/Channel 11