Alec Baldwin and Whoopi Goldberg lent more than star power to Tuesday’s announcement of plans for a 2-year celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. Events beginning this summer will highlight a career that spanned conducting, composing (including, among his best-known works the score of On The Waterfront and the music for West Side Story and Candide), teaching and human rights activism, all of which held direct appeal to Baldwin and Goldberg.
“Though I never met him, we would have definitely been pals,” Baldwin – who is in his seventh year hosting the radio broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic – told a gathering at Lincoln Center. “We share similar passions, not least of which is for the music of Mahler and Tchaikovsky, and his beloved New York Philharmonic. I am in constant awe of musicians who use their art to raise us all. What a gift.” Given the range of Bernstein’s work in concert halls and theaters, universities, television and radio, Baldwin added, a single year was insufficient for ‘Leonard Bernstein At 100,” and festivities have been planned from this fall through August, 2019.
“In 1944, at the age of 26, [Bernstein] insisted on having a mixed-race cast on his very first Broadway production of On The Town. One would think they would have recognized that every time they’ve put it up, but sometimes they forget…Maybe it’s the greatest tribute of all, to his lifelong commitment to social justice, that his FBI file is 800 pages long” – Whoopi Goldberg
At present some 1,000 events are planned, kicking off in Washington at the Kennedy Center in September with a Grammy exhibition opening on the 21st and a concert, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda and featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma, presenting music from West Side Story and Candide. Film composer David Newman (Ice Age, Matilda) will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in November at Disney Hall in a live accompaniment to the film of West Side Story, and the LA Opera will present Francesca Zambello’s production of Candide, conducted by James Conlon.
The first New York City events begin in October, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin (who was present for the announcement) and pianist Lang Lang leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of music from On The Waterfront and West Side Story. In November, trumpeter, composer and conductor Wynton Marsalis will lead the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra in concerts of Bernstein’s popular music, and on New Year’s Eve, Bramwell Tovey will conduct the New York Philharmonic in music from Bernstein’s Broadway shows, including On The Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Candide.
“I was a kid when I first heard his name,” Goldberg said, “and my mother insisted that I should have other references for music than Bugs Bunny.” In fact, she added, she’d learned a lot about classical music from cartoons, which were often scored by serious composers. “Years later when I met him,” she said of Bernstein, “I think I might have tried to pick him up.” Bernstein’s Mass, she said “is the one thing that, in my house, by myself, I will sing at the top of my lungs. Because you feel like you’re closer to God, which may sound strange coming from me, but that’s how I feel.
“Bernstein lent his name and energy to causes that he believed would make the world a better place,” Goldberg continued. “In 1944, at the age of 26, he insisted on having a mixed-race cast on his very first Broadway production of On The Town. One would think they would have recognized that every time they’ve put it up, but sometimes they forget. But I digress. Black folks, Asian-American folks, Caucasian folks sang and danced side by side in major roles and held hands, my God, directly confronting Broadway’s habits of segregation at the time.”
She paid tribute to Bernstein’s continued activism through the decades. “In 1989, in perhaps his finest hour as a world humanitarian, he conducted a historic performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall. It was broadcast live on Christmas Day and watched by millions around the world. For the occasion, he changed Schiller’s wording from ‘Ode to Joy’ to ‘Ode to Freedom.’ In this country, as you may or may not know, being outspoken can be a bitch. You can land in all kinds of trouble. So maybe it’s the greatest tribute of all, to his lifelong commitment to social justice, that his FBI file is 800 pages long.”
The announcement included recollections by Bernstein’s children, Jamie Bernstein, Alexander Bernstein and Nina Bernstein Simmons, all of them active in promoting their father’s multiple legacies. Soprano Julia Bullock, accompanied on the piano by Michael Barrett, sang two Bernstein songs, including a moving rendition of “Somewhere,” from West Side Story.
Noting Bernstein’s lifelong commitment to liberal causes, Baldwin lamented the fact that he wasn’t around today to comment on the state of the union. For that, one need only turn to Bernstein’s Bicentennial show 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which, although a legendary 1976 flop, produced one of his loveliest – and timeliest – compositions, “Take Care of This House.” Sadly, it wasn’t mentioned during the proceedings.
Info at leonardbernstein.com.