KC Symphony Honors Leonard Bernstein

The Kansas City Symphony proposes a musical toast to the incomparable Leonard Bernstein in its 2017-18 classical series to mark his centennial.


   The consensus is that Leonard Bernstein is the greatest American musician of all time, and it's nowhere near hyperbole. As a conductor, he was peerless; appealing to audiences worldwide with impeccable technique, boundless energy, and powerful human communication. As a pianist, few could rival him and he could play anything. As a composer, he made indelible imprints on the American zeitgeist with his music for Broadway, and he had considerable chops when he wrote in orchestral settings. As an educator and speaker, he recognized his bully pulpit and was a passionate advocate who made you understand how relevant and important music is. He was a rarity in America, a classical superstar who burst into the mainstream.

   When Bernstein died on Oct. 14, 1990, the void was incalculable. But his catalog of works is his great gift that he left behind, a gift that is always worth examining and appreciating. To celebrate his 100th birthday in 2018, orchestras across the country are paying tribute, and the Kansas City Symphony is front and center in the effort by performing a fetching assortment of Bernstein's finest pieces with the help of an impressive roster of guest artists.

   "I don't know that everybody is taking the time to do it as comprehensively as we are," says Kansas City Symphony conductor Michael Stern. "I didn't want to just give lip service to the centennial with one concert or to play only hyper-familiar pieces. I wanted really to give a sense of what his legacy was as a musician and as a composer."

   The 2017-18 concert season begins Sept. 15, and for Stern, it's a personal journey as well as a musical one. In his senior year of college, when Stern needed someone to talk to for his thesis on music and the New Deal, Bernstein was happy to help with story after story. When Bernstein showcased three young conductors in the first half of a New York Philharmonic program in 1986, Stern was one of them. His father, violinist Isaac Stern, knew Bernstein for years and premiered Bernstein's Serenade for Violin and Orchestra "after Plato's Symposium" with the composer conducting the Israel Philharmonic in Venice in 1954.

   "There's a lovely letter that Lenny wrote to my father the night before the premiere which we have and is really touching," Stern says. "They were really close friends and my father believed in music-making the way I think Lenny believed in my father's music-making; so they were sort of kindred spirits, these two American guys who both were each the product of these Russian immigrants who came with nothing, basically, and struggled to make things better for their kids. There's a lot of commonality there."

   The Serenade is first up in the Kansas City Symphony's Bernstein celebration (Feb. 2-4), with Sharon Roffman on violin. Roffman and Stern worked together before in 2015 when they premiered a violin concerto by Bruce Adolphe, I Will Not Remain Silent, a homage to rabbi and civil rights activist Joachim Prinz.

   "Michael's one of my absolute favorite people in the world," Roffman says, adding, "I'm quite eager to have the opportunity to pump him for information because it's so close to history. It's amazing."

   It's impossible to talk about, or think about Leonard Bernstein without West Side Story, the Broadway sensation that won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The Broadway production was a perfect storm of creativity: a book by Arthur Laurents, choreography by Jerome Robbins, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, and a musical score for the ages from Bernstein. From March 16-18, the symphony closes the program with Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, perhaps the greatest orchestral re-imagining of a musical ever arranged.

   "The jazz that he wrote in 'Cool' or 'Rumble,' or in any of those numbers in West Side Story, sounds slightly more sedate now than it did then. But then, that was a big deal," Stern says. "Nobody heard music like that in the Broadway context. So I think that was one of the distinctions. It was really worked-out symphonic ideas. The music was always sort of subservient [in other musicals]. In West Side Story, like in an opera, the music advances the narrative. And that's why the Symphonic Suite is so powerful, because you hear the story in the music. You don't need the lyrics to the song to know what that part of the suite it is and what song it's referencing, and also because, like a meme, the music to 'Maria' is in our ear."

   To display Bernstein's skill as a vocal composer, who better than mezzo-soprano extraordinaire and Kansas City native Joyce DiDonato to perform several Bernstein songs the same weekend as West Side Story. And the next weekend (March 23-25), preeminent cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs Bernstein's Three Meditations, arranged for cello and orchestra, from his mammoth theater piece Mass. Both stars jumped at the opportunity to join the symphony and to honor Bernstein, and it's as potent a 1-2 punch in consecutive weeks as any orchestra could have on its concert schedule.

   Again, personal connections intertwine. At Isaac Stern's insistence, a 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma started studying with the head of the cello department at Juilliard, Leonard Rose. Also at this young age in 1962, Bernstein introduced Ma to the public at "An American Pageant of the Arts," a concert with President Kennedy in attendance. Michael Stern and Ma first met at the bilingual primary school (French and English) they both attended, and Stern's father was a presence in Ma's life from that point on.

   "We played in the youth orchestra that [Yo-Yo's] father conducted. His father became my first violin teacher," Stern says. "He left the school before the eighth grade, and then we did stay in touch, but not as closely until he was at Harvard and then I got to Harvard. We reconnected and ever since then, we've been in constant touch."

   The non-Bernstein material in the Kansas City Symphony's classical series is just as enticing. The opening weekend (Sept. 15-17) has a distinct Russian flair with Natasha Paremski playing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto — everyone's favorite competition piece for aspiring young concert pianists — and Rimsky-Korsakov's vivacious Capriccio espagnol. Sandwiched between these two works is American composer Christopher Rouse's Odna Zhizn ("A Life" in Russian). Stern and Rouse have been friends for a while and Stern, who has long admired his music, has always wanted to do this particular piece.

   In the next set of concerts (Oct. 27-29), Stern welcomes violinist Mayu Kishima to the Helzberg Hall stage. Kishima is the first winner of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition and she takes on a dandy in the repertoire: Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto, the very piece she performed with Michael Stern at the podium in the finals of that competition. The orchestra rounds out the program with Dvořák's sparkling, buoyant Eighth Symphony; a work of exceptional tunefulness and remarkable economy in which no note is wasted.

   There's also a bit of a Bernstein connection within the Nov. 24-26 concerts. Pianist Andrew Tyson makes his Kansas City Symphony debut as he performs Chopin's Second Piano Concerto. Bernstein co-conducted the New York Philharmonic with Dimitri Mitropoulos before taking over himself as music director, and for one of his first concerts in charge in October 1958, Bernstein conducted this concerto with famed Chopin interpreter Guiomar Novaes.

   "I think every pianist has to at least come to terms with Chopin, and even the very rare individuals who dislike Chopin really have to play his music, because all the subsequent music that's been written has inevitably been influenced by his ideas about the piano and about piano technique," Tyson says. "He really single-handedly reinvented what could be done with the instrument, and the whole concept of the instrument.”

   "He revolutionized fingerings, he revolutionized the way you held your hands, he revolutionized pedaling, basically every single aspect of the instrument changed with Chopin."

   Like Chopin, Bernstein was a singular genius and innovator himself. The season concludes June 22-24, with Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, subtitled The Age of Anxiety, and Stern says it's reserved for the season finale because they wanted one more important work to say goodbye before the summer, to remember they had done this retrospective. The prevailing feature of The Age of Anxiety, based on the W.H. Auden poem of the same name, is the overt use of jazz driven by the piano within a serious classical context. As Stern says, it's not a watered-down version of what a jazz band is. He actually has the orchestra play jazz for real. To borrow from Tyson, so many aspects of composition in the 20th and 21st centuries changed with Bernstein.

   "I think he recognized that the barriers between what was serious and high-minded, and what was popular but still excellent, and what was jazz and what was Broadway, and what was any classical music from Baroque to modern, all of that was one language for him," Stern says. "That was a very, very big deal, because no composer working after World War II wasn't influenced in some way by that freedom, which he started. He really blurred lines, and for him, music was music. And that's why he could incorporate jazz and popular music into music that he wrote either for the Broadway stage or for the concert hall. So every composer since has had this reason, this permission, to write music in the vernacular of our country. That was new. Nobody had done that before. So I think that is worth celebrating, plus he was just such a great musician. It's an important anniversary."

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Music