Baltimore Symphony's send-off concert with music director Marin Alsop, an event for subscribers before the orchestra heads to the U.K. on tour. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Leonard Bernstein stood about 5’7’’, but the dynamic conductor and multi-genre composer towered over the music world throughout his eventful life. That life and its myriad accomplishments have been the focus of renewed attention during this centennial year — attention that became all the more heated with the approach of Aug. 25, the day Bernstein would have turned 100.
The birthday finds the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival performing a salute to Bernstein conducted by Marin Alsop, who counts him among her finest mentors and friends.
The BSO’s concert is part of what the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York counts as more than 2,300 events pegged to the centennial celebration. (He’s even Saturday’s Google Doodle.) That ongoing celebration has also seen many a boxed set packing re-releases of Bernstein’s massive recorded legacy with the New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and others.
New books about Bernstein, including a remarkably revealing one by his daughter Jamie Bernstein, have appeared, along with any number of stories in the news media — all genres and sizes.
On the same day Alsop and the BSO mark Bernstein’s 100th birthday, a concert featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and such notables guest artists as Yo-Yo Ma and Audra McDonald, will be held at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, where Bernstein conducted and taught for many years. (PBS will film the concert for a broadcast in December.)
One of Bernstein’s most gifted students at Tanglewood was Alsop.
“He was not an advice kind of person,” Alsop said of Bernstein before departing on the BSO’s tour of Scotland, England and Ireland. “He led by example. And he never led me astray. Nothing existed in a vacuum for him; everything was connected – music, philosophy, language, even quantum physics.”
After making its Edinburgh Festival debut Friday with music by various composers, the BSO’s Bernstein birthday tribute the next day will include his brilliant “Serenade” for violin and orchestra (with soloist Nicola Benedetti) and excerpts from his two most indelible Broadway musicals, “On the Town” and “West Side Story.”
For Alsop, the immersion in Bernstein’s music will continue in the new season. She’ll conduct a performance of his eclectic, controversial “Mass” in October with forces from the Peabody Conservatory and Morgan State University.
In addition to being an ardent champion of Bernstein’s compositions, Alsop is an admirer of his conducting.
“When he was doing Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Mahler, it was Lenny being Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Mahler,” Alsop said. “He identified so strongly with the music. Profound thought went into his interpretations. And he was always learning something new about a score.”
Just as Bernstein’s conducting was unlike anyone else’s, his personality was one of a kind.
“Sometimes I think he never slept,” Alsop said. “He was always a party animal. And he had no sense of personal space. When he came into a room, he was like a large puppy. If he liked you, he slathered you with kindness.”