To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, the legendary Jewish American conductor and composer, Arizona Musicfest’s presents “Beethoven & Bernstein.”
The Feb. 25 event marks the finale of Arizona Musicfest’s Festival Orchestra Week, which starts Feb. 18.
“Musicfest is joining with the rest of the musical world in celebrating one of the finest composers, conductors and music educators of all time,” said Allan Naplan, executive and producing director for Musicfest.
Naplan credited Bernstein with making classical music “relevant and accessible for many different audiences.”
“Classical music is too often put up on a pedestal,” Naplan said. “Bernstein was able to say, ‘This music is for everyone and let me show you how. Let me dissect it and make it so that it’s just this infectious element that everyone can embrace.’”
Naplan pointed to Bernstein’s television show, “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on CBS,” which ran from 1958 to 1972, as evidence of his “genius as a lecturer.”
Jamie Bernstein, Bernstein’s eldest child, has been traveling across the country celebrating the centennial of her father’s birth at a range of events. She is “astonished” by the number of both audience members and performers who credited the television program for helping them first fall in love with classical music.
At the Arizona Musicfest event, Jamie will serve as mistress of ceremonies and will talk about her father’s life and music.
In an interview with the Jewish News, Jamie said that her father, the child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, had a deep if “idiosyncratic” way of relating to Judaism.
“While his daily life may have appeared fairly secular, he thought deeply about his relationship to God and expressed it through his music,” she said.
The music and choir performances her father heard as a child at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Boston influenced his music in terms of both sounds and ideas, especially the choral work “Chichester Psalm,” which is sung in Hebrew and will be featured in the Musicfest performance.
“In the angry section of the second movement of ‘Chich,’ as my dad liked to call it,” Jamie said, “we hear a quote from a psalm, ‘Why do the nations rage?’ This is in keeping with a kind of fist-shaking at God that we find in so many of his works.”
Jamie said this attitude of deep, almost violent questioning is even more strongly featured in Bernstein’s third symphony, “Kaddish,” which he dedicated to President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated weeks before its first performance.
Jamie also noted her father’s deep ties to Israel and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, with which Bernstein worked and performed for decades.
“My father was there in 1948, conducting for the soldiers, as Israel was being born,” Jamie said. “That experience was so thrilling for him that it helped him keep Israel close to his heart all his life — even when he disagreed with their politics.”
Bernstein was also well known for his radical political activism, which led him to being blacklisted and targeted by the FBI.
When Bernstein and his wife held a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party in 1970, protestors purportedly from the Jewish Defense League picketed the Bernsteins’ New York City apartment building. It wasn’t until years later, after Bernstein’s FBI file was released, that the family learned the Bureau had helped to organize those protests and had a hand in producing the hate mail that bombarded the family.
Despite this, Bernstein never stopped fighting for change.
“My dad worked all his life to try and make the world a better place — through his actions as much as through his music,” Jamie said. “He believed in putting music to work as a means of changing the world. With ‘West Side Story,’ I’d say he made some headway there.”
On Feb. 23, another Festival Orchestra Week event, “Festival Orchestra POPS! With Robert Moody & Friends” will feature some of Bernstein’s songs from “West Side Story.” JN
For more information on showtimes or tickets, visit azmusicfest.org.