Leonard Bernstein Celebrated by Boston Symphony This Week with Two Works

Wednesday October 5, 2022
Originally published on October 5, 2022

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein  

Leonard Bernstein's legacy is getting the Hollywood treatment as Bradley Cooper directs and stars in "Maestro," a biopic currently in production. It won't be in theaters or Netflix (the streaming platform producing it) until next fall; but the legendary composer/conductor also plays an important role in "Tar," the Cate Blanchett-helmed drama hitting some theaters this week. In the film, Blanchett plays a world-class, out conductor who is considered the Leonard Bernstein of the 21st century. In the film, she calls Bernstein her mentor, and they both share a similar breadth of talent, as well as messy personal lives. (Spoiler alert: in "Tar," Blanchett's abuse catches up with her.)

Much of that personal life, notably how his being queer impacted his career and marriage, will likely be explored in "Maestro." But Tar's dramatic fall from grace hints at what could have happened to Bernstein had he lived in our woke times. 

When he died in 1990 at the age of 72, the New York Times music critic Donald Henahan called Bernstein, "one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history." He had along association with the Boston Symphony, who this week are playing two of his better-known concert works, "Serenade (after Plato's Symposium)", for violin and orchestra and "Chichester Psalms" (for chorus and orchestra) under music director Andris Nelsons. 

Leonard Bernstein and Serge Koussevitzky
Leonard Bernstein and Serge Koussevitzky  

Bernstein became an overnight sensation after his spectacular debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943 when he substituted for ailing conductor Bruno Walter at a concert. By that point the young Bernstein had already bonded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra's legendary musical director Serge Koussevitzky; but he had been a fan of the orchestra since attending Boston Pops concerts as a teenager. "To me, in those days, the Pops was heaven itself ... I thought ... it was the supreme achievement of the human race," Bernstein later recalled. Throughout the 1940s he worked closely Koussevitzky. In 1949, the conductor premiered Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety," at Symphony Hall with Bernstein as piano soloist. The program also marked Bernstein's debut with the orchestra as a piano soloist. But when Koussevitzky died in 1951, the young Bernstein did not take over the Boston orchestra as was thought at the time. Instead he would wait six more years before he would accept the conductorship of the New York Philharmonic, a move that would end up curtailing his composing of new work.

Bernstein's output was split between writing serious music and Broadway scores (most famously "West Side Story" in 1957). While his Broadway scores remain his better-known works, his orchestral output also points to his remarkable talent and musical ingenuity. This week the Boston Symphony presents two of his better-known orchestral works: "Serenade (after Plato's Symposium)" and "Chichester Psalms" for chorus and orchestra. 

Written in 1954, the "Serenade" came about after Bernstein reread Plato's dialogue, "The Symposium." The website LeonardBernstein.com writes that: "Plato's dialogue concerns itself primarily with the nature and purpose of love. The text explores love through a series of speeches in praise of Eros, delivered by some of the great thinkers of Athens at a symposium, which in ancient Greece meant, quite simply, a drinking party."

Bernstein said of the five-movement score. "The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet."

At Thursday night's concert, the scheduled soloist Janine Jansen has withdrawn from these performances due to illness. Jennifer Koh will perform Bernstein's "Serenade" in her place.

While "Serenade' was written during a period of great output for Bernstein — he was composing his comic operetta "Candide" at the same time, the "Chichester Psalms" came after a long creative drought. "During his eleven years as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1958-69), Bernstein completed almost no compositions apart from his 'Kaddish, Symphony No. 3' (1963) and his 'Chichester Psalms' (1965), which add up to about one hour of music," writes the BSO program notes.

Bernstein scores the piece for for boy treble or countertenor, choir and orchestra. He chose the Hebrew psalms for the piece, some sung in their entirety, others in fragments over its three-movements. He wrote it at a time of great emotional strife: he had taken a sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic and was writing a musical based on "The Skin of our Teeth" with Betty Comden and Adolph Greeen (his previous collaborators on "On the Town" and "Wonderful Town"), but the project had stalled. Plus his close friend composer Marc Blitzstein had been murdered. "I don't even know what I'm not writing... I can't get over Kennedy or Marc. Life is a tooth without a skin," he wrote at the time. The musical project fell through, which gave Bernstein the opportunity to write a new choral piece when asked by the Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester to write a piece. Like the Third Symphony," Kaddish," written in memory of President Kennedy, the 20-minute piece combines choruses singing Hebrew text. But where his symphony expressed despair, "Chichester Psalms" is hopeful and life-affirming.

It also was something of a change for Bernstein at the time. "I spent almost the whole year writing 12-tone music and even more experimental stuff. I was happy that all these new sounds were coming out: but after about six months of work, I threw it all away. It just wasn't my music; it wasn't honest. The end result was the 'Chichester Psalms' which is the most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I've ever written." 

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus joins BSO musical director Andris Nelsons for the concert. The program also features two works new to the BSO repertoire: the BSO-commissioned "Starling Variations" by American composer Elizabeth Ogonek and Dmitri Shostakovich's rarely heard 1930 Symphony No. 3 for chorus and orchestra, an early, jingoistic hymn to the Soviet experiment that continues Nelsons' and the BSO's multi-season survey of the composer's complete symphonies.

For more information, the Boston Symphony website