The charismatic pianist Lang Lang joins the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Tanglewood’s opening night performance July 6. But for most of the summer, the focus shines on another charismatic musician, whose legacy is forever linked to the BSO’s bucolic summer home.
To classical music fans, it may seem like orchestras around the world have been celebrating the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth for years now. In fact, musical remembrances of Lenny did began early last year, and now they will culminate during this Tanglewood season.
Bernstein spent so many summers here. He taught. He conducted. He performed. His final appearance onstage was at Tanglewood, on August 19, 1990, conducting Beethoven and Britten with the Tanglewood Music Center orchestra.
And so approaching his centenary—Bernstein was born on Aug. 25, 1918—the Tanglewood schedule is chock-a-block with his music, conducted and performed by those whom he influenced. His Broadway hit “On the Town” fills the Shed on July 7. Stagings of “Trouble in Tahiti,” and “A Quiet Place,” will follow, as well as two nights of “Candide” in August.
His daughter Jamie hosts one of his classic Young People’s Concerts in August. And all-Bernstein concerts culminate the season Aug. 18 and on his birthday, Aug. 25—the final program being a starry extravaganza including Yo-Yo Ma, Audra McDonald, Midori, Thomas Hampson, Susan Graham, and others, conducted by Andris Nelsons, Michael Tilson-Thomas, John Williams, Keith Lockhart and Christoph Eschenbach.
In all, it’s more than a dozen concerts with Bernstein’s music, and many more programs that reflect the music he conducted, performed or inspired, at Tanglewood. In a year of tributes, it’s the best tribute that could be imagined.
BSO music director Andris Nelsons never met Bernstein, but he understands the legacy.
“When I was a young student—a young boy even—I admired him,” Nelsons said last summer at Tanglewood. “Bernstein was everywhere—Vienna, London—and everyone admired him. Of course he loved Boston, and he did so many great things at Tanglewood. He was the best example of what a conductor should be.
“Conducting is about communication,” Nelsons said. “You don’t play any notes, but you communicate with the musicians. Bernstein is probably the biggest example of someone who did this brilliantly.
“On the podium, you can’t dictate something. But you can influence. He made everyone feel that the music was composed for them.”
Cape Symphony Orchestra music director Jung-Ho Pak is one of dozens of young conductors who studied at Tanglewood, under Bernstein and others. Pak was there in the early 1980s, when Bernstein was a constant presence.
“He was incredibly gifted intellectually,” Pak says, “But his soul was in the street. He had a hunger to be understood, and to be loved by the broad public.”
Tilson-Thomas, whose star rose during his early years as a BSO assistant, and who spent many years working with Bernstein, returns this summer for multiple performances. His own great career took him to San Francisco and to Miami, where he founded the New World Symphony.
That symphony, a kind of post-doctoral training ground for the most talented conservatory graduates, is modeled on Tanglewood itself, and Bernstein’s ideas: adventurous programming, outreach to audiences, and a populist—never elitist—approach to classical music.
“The New World Symphony is kind of a continuation of my experiences at Tanglewood,” Tilson-Thomas says. “Coming back to conduct during the centennial is like coming home. Now when I get to Tanglewood, I just walk around, exploring all the nooks and crannies on the grounds. It’s full of memories.”
Just like this summer will be. Effusive, enthusiastic, generous with his time and ideas, Bernstein gave his all while pursuing his love of music. This summer-long tribute may not be enough to capture his oversized spirit, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra will certainly give it a try.
The 2018 Tanglewood season opens July 6, with Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra with guest pianist Lang Lang. The summer season runs through Aug. 26. For tickets and information visit www.bso.org or call 866-266-1200.