Leonard Bernstein waged war between New York City street gangs in his most successful work, the 1957 musical West Side Story — but asked for peace in the aftermath of World War II. Ten years earlier, this son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants had performed in commemoration of the United Nations General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, introduced by Eleanor Roosevelt.
The American composer/conductor/pianist would have turned 100 in August. Joining the efforts of other Bernstein galas worldwide, Brevard Music Festival honors his iconic repertoire with concerts big and small.
As part of the annual “Festival Within a Festival” program during its three-month classical-music celebration, Brevard Music Center (Brevard Music Festival’s host venue) will stage an outdoor showing of West Side Story accompanied by a full symphony orchestra, and present its version of Mass, Bernstein’s musical that questions the necessity of God.
“It’s a season-long exploration of Bernstein — the man and the music,” says Jason Posnock, the Center’s director of artistic planning and educational programs. He emphasizes the composer’s indelible impact on 20th-century American music and beyond. The centennial angle will be worked by countless orchestral companies. “What sets [our] Bernstein Festival apart from others,” declares Posnock, “is the comprehensiveness of our offerings.”
Bernstein wrote ballets and chamber music; he created scripts for both stage and screen. “We present the complete picture,” says Posnock.
The three major orchestral concerts will be conducted by Keith Lockhart, the Center’s artistic director.
“Regretfully, I never met him” — Bernstein died in 1990 — “but I think it’s pretty hard to be an American classical musician, growing up in the second half of the 20th Century, and not be affected by Bernstein,” says Lockhart. “I was among the last generation of conductors who could have studied with him, but I chose to go to the West Coast and missed my opportunity.”
But Lockhart did get to see Bernstein perform with the Israeli Philharmonic, on tour in Pittsburgh in the mid 1980s. “At that time, his legend was immense. It was incredible to actually see the person in the flesh on stage. He was a glamorous figure, as opposed to all the grandfatherly conductors we saw on the fronts of our album covers.”
Lockhart also notes that Bernstein’s career “straddled many worlds.” He conducted, he composed, he taught.
During his celebrated lifetime, Bernstein left no note unplayed, influencing the world of art, stage, education, and politics. Nowhere is his creativity more evident than in his Mass, a work commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to open the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. Co-written with Steven Schwartz (Godspell) with input by Paul Simon, Mass was controversial for its dissenting religious message and for the then-shocking melding of musical genres: classical, rock, blues, jazz, symphonic, and gospel.
“Bernstein’s Mass is something that transcends the normal concert experience,” Lockhart says. “It’s an epic work — a big, noisy, very 20th-century struggle.” He describes the theater piece as “deal[ing] with the crisis of belief that is so common in our modern world. Without being specifically political, it addresses the lack of faith of any higher power steering us to a better place … it’s very timely right now. I’m delighted to be able to be in the position to share it.”
Brevard Music Center/Brevard Music Festival (349 Andante Lane) presents its “festival within a festival,” The Centennial of Leonard Bernstein, with an official launch on Sunday, June 24, 3pm, at Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium, with “Beloved Bernstein,” featuring five Broadway scores: Overture to Candide, Fancy Free (the complete ballet), three dance episodes from On the Town, Divertimento, and the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront. Shows continue with “Bernstein & Friends” on July 9, “A Bernstein Celebration” on July 13, West Side Story in Concert on July 14, “Bernstein the Educator” on July 15, Bernstein’s Candide on July 26 and 28, and the season finale, Bernstein’s Mass, on August 5. For details, times, and ticket information, see brevardmusic.org.