Leonard Bernstein conducting the LSO in Mahler 8 in the Royal Albert Hall, 1966 © London Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein conducting the LSO in Mahler 8 in the Royal Albert Hall, 1966
© London Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein’s relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra reached right back to 1966, making his debut conducting – characteristically – Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, a composer whose cause he did so much to champion. Yet it wasn’t until much later that the affair with the orchestra blossomed when, in 1986, the LSO staged a Bernstein Festival in his honour which included many of the composers he admired programmed alongside his own works. ''It's a little embarrassing because I'm not dead,'' he confessed wryly at the time. ''I'm not even a round number. Someone must have an image of me as being on the brink. Or else they're trying to get me before I go.''

Sadly, Bernstein didn’t have a great deal of time left. He died from a heart attack in October 1990, aged 72, just five days after announcing his retirement from conducting. In 1987 he had accepted the title of the LSO’s President, one of only five people by that stage to have held the honour. One of his final studio recordings was with the orchestra, a riotous account of his unruly operetta, Candide, made in Abbey Road in conjunction with a performance at the Barbican, itself captured on camera. To watch Lenny, as he was affectionately known, jigging and jiving away on the podium during the auto-da-fé was to experience the sheer joy of the man’s music-making. Next August sees Bernstein’s centenary and the LSO celebrates his genius with a series of concerts this autumn led by newly installed Music Director, Sir Simon Rattle, and by Bernstein protégé, Marin Alsop.

Marin Alsop and Leonard Bernstein © London Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop and Leonard Bernstein
© London Symphony Orchestra
Bernstein was more than a conductor and a composer, he was a passionate educator too. Lenny was Alsop’s inspiration. Aged nine, she was taken by her father to one of Bernstein's concerts for young people. "I fell totally in love with Lenny,” she explained in an Observer interview in 2013. “Before the music was over, I leaned across to my father and said: 'That's what I'm going to do.' He said: 'Fine.'"

Alsop first met Bernstein at Tanglewood. Last year, she told me what Bernstein meant to her. “I learned so much from him about music and so much more! He always encouraged me to be true to myself, not imitative but authentic and to always remember that my role is to serve the composer first and foremost. Lenny believed that music could unite us and bond us and that we, as artists, have an inherent obligation to be good citizens of this world.” It was Bernstein who, in 1989, conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall, uniting musicians from East and West Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States. In the choral finale, he replaced Schiller’s word “joy” with “freedom”. That was the scale of the man.

Leonard Bernstein holding the score to <i>Halil</i>, 1988 © Suzie Maeder | London Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein holding the score to Halil, 1988
© Suzie Maeder | London Symphony Orchestra
As composer, the first Bernstein work most people would name is West Side Story, a remarkable collaboration with Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim, probably the greatest musical ever written. Alsop includes the infectious Symphonic Dances from it in her Family Concert, an event that demonstrates that music is for everyone. Perhaps Alsop will inspire new conductors among her youthful audience in the same way Bernstein inspired her. Further inspiration to participate comes via Simon Halsey’s Choral Singing Day, where Bernstein’s life-affirming Chichester Psalms is up for study. Some sight-singing ability is required, but what a great way to get to know one of Bernstein’s masterpieces.

All three of Bernstein’s symphonies are billed this autumn, all of them rarely programmed. The Symphony no. 1 “Jeremiah” was composed in 1942, using texts from the Book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible, sung by a mezzo, to tell the biblical story of Jeremiah and the ruin of the temple in Jerusalem. Jamie Barton takes the mezzo role in November under Alsop’s baton. Alsop is also at the helm for the Third Symphony, subtitled “Kaddish”, the Jewish prayer for the dead that never mentions death. It is a work of anguish, dedicated to the memory of President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated just weeks before the symphony’s première. Alsop believes that Bernstein used the symphony to explore his own faith, telling NPR News in 2012: “For Leonard Bernstein, the most pressing issue of the 20th century was a crisis of faith… a faith in humanity. He represents this crisis in music in terms of atonality versus tonality. For Bernstein, atonality captured the musical end of civilization.”

Leonard Bernstein rehearsing, 1990 © London Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein rehearsing, 1990
© London Symphony Orchestra
Bernstein’s Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, is conducted by Rattle. It was inspired by WH Auden’s poem of the same name, which Bernstein considered “one of the most shattering examples of virtuosity in the history of English poetry.” After a lonely prologue, the work is a set of variations for piano and orchestra. Rattle’s soloist is Krystian Zimerman, who performed it with the LSO back in 1986 under Bernstein himself. The Age of Anxiety is provocatively paired with a concert version of Wonderful Town, a 1953 musical which won five Tony Awards, telling the tale of two sisters who seek fame from their New York City apartment. It includes such hit numbers as “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man”. Danielle de Niese and Nathan Gunn headline the performance, which also runs as one of the LSO’s new Half Six Fix features – a short early evening programme running without interval.

When Bernstein was buried in a Brooklyn cemetery, a score of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was placed across his heart. His beloved Mahler appears in the LSO’s festival with performances of the First Symphony and the great Adagio from the Tenth, helping to form a fitting tribute to a big-hearted man.

Click here to see the events in the LSO's Bernstein series. 


Article sponsored by the London Symphony Orchestra.