In case you somehow missed it amid all the programming Philadelphia and beyond has put on, this year marks Leonard Bernstein’s centennial.
And yet, somehow his music and extensive works have not only withstood the test of time, but found new ways to inhabit today’s societal space.
For instance, Bernstein wrote the music for West Side Story in 1957, but composer Darin Atwater has found a way to make the story feel even more contemporary with South Side Symphonic Dances. The piece will make its world premiere on July 18 during Bernstein: Broadway & Beyond with The Philadelphia Orchestra at 8 p.m. at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.
It’s one part of the program conductor Kensho Watanabe is most looking forward to.
South Side represents “the tragedy and triumph of African-American youth who navigate the complexity of urban living,” per a description on the Mann’s website.
For Watanabe, it serves as a complement to the dances of West Side Story preceding it and shows how Bernstein’s works continue to bleed into contemporary conversation.
“The conflict between the rival gangs that happens in West Side Story is now replaced by basically these African-American youth against all of the oppressive forces of government or society that includes all the stuff we are facing as a country — and we have faced for decades now, centuries,” he said. “So, in a way, it is a modern take and very apt take on what is going on in our society right now.”
The program is split into two halves, with the first featuring symphonic dances from West Side Story as well as South Side, Symphonic Dances. The second half features pieces by Bernstein from his musical and symphonic life. It opens with “Simple Song” from Mass and includes several pieces from On the Town, Candide and even a tune from Peter Pan.
Tying it together at the end will be Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which Bernstein recorded in 1959.
“During the Orchestra season we’ve done many, many of Bernstein’s works and I maybe had thought we covered almost everything,” Watanabe said, “but actually there’s some things we have not performed yet, so it’s quite exciting.”
For instance, he has never performed Peter Pan, so he is looking forward to performing “Who Am I?” from the musical as part of the program. He also teased the Orchestra will close its next season with a full performance of Candide, so the inclusion of “Glitter and Be Gay” could serve as a preview of what’s to come.
A conductor and musician himself — he’s served as assistant conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra since the 2016-17 season and is an accomplished violinist — Watanabe noted that Bernstein’s multifaceted skills as a musician, composer, conductor, pianist and educator allowed him to stretch his talents beyond confines.
“I’m always amazed by how multidisciplinary Leonard Bernstein was,” he marveled, “The breadth of his talent kind of is overwhelming to think about in some ways.”
During the Orchestra’s most recent season, Watanabe had the opportunity to perform a family concert of all Bernstein works with the esteemed composer’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein. A concert narrator, she shared stories about her father’s life to accompany the music and chose certain selections.
“That was such a great insight into his life being told by his own kin, but also being able to pair that with his music was one of those experiences you won’t forget as a conductor, especially for me being a young conductor,” he said.
The musical selections in Bernstein: Broadway & Beyond highlight his ability to span genres and musical styles, from symphonic works to ballets to musicals.
Watanabe cited Mass in particular, as it deals with questions of faith and religion while being a revolutionary piece of music for the way it blended genres — from musical-style with a chorus to liturgical content.
“He just did it all,” he said, “and that also allows all of his music to stand the test of time because you can’t say he is a composer of a specific genre; he broke down all of those walls between the two or three different kinds of music he was encompassing.”
Some of the music — such as a piece from On the Town — will be accompanied by baritone singer Joseph Lattanzi, soprano Alexandra Schoeny and pianist Stewart Goodyear.
Watanabe is looking forward to working with so many different artists, for which they will all have just one day to rehearse together — the day of the performance.
It’s a fast turnaround, he acknowledged with a laugh. “But this is the kind of program I love doing because it’s high intensity but everybody’s there to make the best performance possible with all these wonderful works.”
Leonard Bernstein was a tremendous talent.