In honor of what would have been Leonard Bernstein’s hundredth birthday, the Tanglewood Festival is pulling out all the stops in honor of, arguably, its most memorable and significant alumnus.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
“Tanglewood is my birthright,” Leonard Bernstein once said of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) summer home. So next summer, in honor of what would have been Bernstein’s hundredth birthday, the Tanglewood Festival is pulling out all the stops in honor of, arguably, its most memorable and significant alumnus, with a season that celebrates Bernstein the Composer in (almost) all his brilliant, flawed glory as well as one that honors his legacy as conductor, teacher, and citizen of the world.
What’s to be had? Lots, actually. Starting with the theatrical works, there’s the Boston Pops’ first-ever full performance of the Bernstein-Comden/Green-Robbins 1944 smash hit On the Town (July 7). Next, there’s Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s caustic one-act 1951 satire of a failing marriage that gets only its third BSO-related performance (all at Tanglewood) since 1952 (July 12). Fans of the film version of West Side Story can see the movie accompanied by a live orchestral soundtrack a couple of weeks later (July 28). Following that comes a real rarity: a staging of Garth Edwin Sunderland’s chamber-opera adaptation of Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth’s A Quiet Place (August 9). Capping off the staged festivities is Candide (August 22 and 23).
The orchestral music on offer is equally broad and compelling. The BSO gives its first full performance of Fancy Free (with Boston Ballet) plus it reprises the Divertimento and Serenade (the latter featuring Baiba Skride, August 18). Also scheduled for the season are Chichester Psalms (July 15) and Elizabeth Rowe playing Halil (July 21). Most intriguing of all is the orchestra’s first reading of Songfest, Bernstein’s 1977 masterpiece for six singers and orchestra, featuring an all-star vocal lineup of Nadine Sierra, Isabel Leonard, Kelley O’Connor, Nicholas Phan, Elliot Madore, and Eric Owens (August 4). The celebration culminates on Bernstein’s actual birthday, August 25th, with a “celebration concert” that showcases excerpts from music already heard during the season (plus selections from the summer’s only major absence, Mass), as well as music closely associated with Bernstein’s conducting career and a new piece by John Williams.
As for the Music Center Orchestra (TMCO), they’re slated to play a number of important Bernstein scores, from the brief Opening Prayer (July 9) to the ballet Facsimile (July 23) and the Three Meditations from Mass (with Yo-Yo Ma, August 19). The TMCO is also the ensemble in the pit for A Quiet Place.
Leading it all is an array of conductors one doesn’t always associate with Bernstein’s music. Still, it’s more than encouraging to see Andris Nelsons conducting five of the summer’s thirteen Bernstein concerts (he shares the August 25th date with Christoph Eschenbach, Michael Tilson Thomas, Keith Lockhart, and John Williams). After Nelsons, Stefan Asbury leads two concerts; David Newman, Bramwell Tovey, Lockhart, Charles Prince, Herbert Blomstedt (you read that right!), and Eric Jacobsen take one full concert each.
In addition to those mentioned above, soloists slated to appear include Thomas Hampson, Yo-Yo Ma, and Midori, all of whom worked, at some point early in their careers, with Bernstein. And his daughter, Jamie Bernstein, hosts a special Young People’s Concert on August 10th.
And if you’re not a Bernstein fan? Well, there’s likely plenty here for you, too, including Lang Lang playing Tchaikovsky (July 6), a semi-staged performance of La bohème (July 15), Christian Tetzlaff performing Sibelius (July 22), Charles Dutoit conducting The Firebird (August 3), Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Mahler (August 12), and Nelsons leading Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 4 (August 17). After Bernstein’s music, there’s a good amount of Mozart and Beethoven to be heard (including an Emerson Quartet-led two-evening string quartet marathon, July 24 & 25), plus rarities by Copland (An Outdoor Overture), Shostakovich (his two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms), Wieniawski (Violin Concerto no. 2), Franz Schrecker (the Chamber Symphony), and even Mozart (the infrequently-played Symphony no. 34).
Thomas Adès curates this year’s Contemporary Music Festival, which features piece by composers ranging from the old guard of Witold Lutoslawski, György Kurtág, and Harrison Birtwistle to Millennials like Andrew Norman, Sean Shepherd, and Francisco Coll. There’s also music by Adès, himself, and his compatriot Gerald Barry (among others) to be found. It all promises to be a pretty heady brew.
But the big draw of the summer is – or should be – Bernstein. In life, he cast a large shadow, well, pretty much everywhere he went, but especially at Tanglewood, where he got his start and spent parts of many summers of his life teaching and conducting. In its breadth and creativity, the Festival’s upcoming celebration of Bernstein’s career does his memory proud. Taken with the rest of the season, too, next summer’s programming speaks well of the vision of the BSO’s artistic planning team. Let’s hope they can keep it up.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.