Leonard Bernstein © Wikicommons
Leonard Bernstein
© Wikicommons
West Side Story is arguably the greatest musical ever written, an edgy adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with sharp lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and sassy choreography by Jerome Robbins, immortalised in a classic film. But it’s Leonard Bernstein’s vibrant, pulsating, heart-tugging score which has won it a place in the hearts of millions. Bernstein – composer, conductor, educator – would have been 100 in 2018 and many orchestras and venues are taking the opportunity to programme his works, some in season-long retrospectives, others in short festival seasons. Müpa Budapest prefers to offer a short, sharp burst of Bernstein, coming at you in one single day on Sunday 4th February.

This will be the tenth time that the Budapest Festival Orchestra has joined forces with Müpa for a day-long marathon to explore the work of a single composer, although Bernstein’s work is also being put into context alongside music by his compatriots. With each concert lasting up to an hour in length, it’s a wonderful opportunity to dip into a concert or two to discover some of Bernstein’s lesser known works, or dive in for a full immersion from morning until night.

Bernstein wrote three symphonies, none of which are at all conventional. The First – subtitled “Jeremiah” – is the only one included in the marathon, performed by the Danubia Orchestra Óbuda conducted by Máté Hámori. Composed in 1942, it uses texts from the Book of Lamentations in the third movement. Despite its dark, forbidding tone, there are moments where Bernstein’s characteristic string and woodwind writing shines through, reminiscent of Aaron Copland and the great outdoors. Jazzy rhythms and syncopations can never be far away in Bernstein, featuring in the symphony’s second movement (“Profanation”) before the mezzo joins the fray (singing in Hebrew) for the “Lamentation” finale.

Chichester Psalms is one of Bernstein’s most popular works and is often performed by choirs. It was commissioned for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival at Chichester Cathedral, although New York grabbed the world première. It is an uplifting, overtly Jewish work, coming just two years after the despair and anger of his Third Symphony, “Kaddish”. Psalm 100 invites the choir to “Make a joyful noise”, kicking off the work in exuberant style. Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) features a boy treble soloist in its reflective opening, punctuated by the gruff “Why do the nations rage” section before Psalms 131 and 133 close the work. The Saint Ephraim Choir performs Chichester Psalms in the composer’s own reduction of the orchestral part to organ, harp and percussion.

The Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium” is essentially a violin concerto in five movements, composed in 1954. Sweetly lyrical in places, earthy in others, each movement inspired by Ancient Greek poets, philosophers and orators. Isaac Stern was the soloist at the work’s première. In Budapest, the Venezuelan violinist Giovanni Guzzo takes the spotlight, joining the Budapest Strings Chamber Orchestra in a programme which also includes Samuel Barber’s elegiac Adagio for strings.

Iván Fischer © Marco Borggreve
Iván Fischer
© Marco Borggreve
Opening the entire marathon is the rarely heard Slava! A Political Overture. It was dedicated to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (whose nickname “Slava” lends the work its title) and includes pre-recorded political speeches played over the orchestra. Bernstein also includes a cheeky quotation from the “Slava” chorus from the Coronation Scene in Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov. Peter Csaba conducts the MAV Symphony Orchestra in the marathon’s opening salvo.

With programmes running up to an hour, there isn’t time for either of Bernstein’s more famous stageworks, West Side Story and Candide, to be performed in their entirety. However, Trouble in Tahiti – a dark little musical – fits in neatly. The work doesn’t have the exotic location its title suggests; Trouble in Tahiti is the title of the movie that Sam and Dinah watch. The plot concerns a day in the life of this unhappily married suburban American couple. György Philipp conducts the Budapest Festival Orchestra in this concert performance.

Candide does make an appearance in the marathon, its frothy overture – a pot pourri of the show’s hit tunes – opening the Pannon Philharmonic’s programme which also includes George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. Numbers from West Side Story appear in Paul Appleby’s recital of American songs, while the suite of Symphonic Dances Bernstein drew from this musical is paired with Gershwin’s jazzy Rhapsody in Blue (a favourite Bernstein turn at the piano) in Iván Fischer’s concert with the BFO that closes the day-long marathon.

Something’s coming? Bernstein’s coming to Budapest.

Click here to see all the events in the Bernstein Marathon.


This preview was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary - MUPA