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Philadelphia Orchestra Celebrates Leonard Bernstein's Birthday

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The Philadelphia Orchestra kicks off a Bernstein Festival in January 2008 in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the birth of one of America’s greatest musicians, the iconic composer, conductor, and educator Leonard Bernstein.

The Festival runs from January 10 to February 2, 2008, and explores this remarkable man through some of his most celebrated works. Two concerts later in the season also feature pieces by Bernstein: “The Bernstein Beat” Family Concert on March 1, and Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”) on April 18 and 20.

In addition to works by Bernstein, the Festival features two world premieres by Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon. One of America’s most frequently performed composers, Ms. Higdon carries on Bernstein’s legacy as a composer whose works and musical inspiration cross genres and have popular appeal. The Higdon commissions are part of a two-week residency program, Music Alive, sponsored by Meet the Composer and the American Symphony Orchestra League.

Why Leonard Bernstein?

Leonard Bernstein possessed a rare combination of gifts as a conductor, composer, and teacher. His compositions combined classical and popular styles, incorporating Latin rhythms, jazz, and rock into works for the stage and the concert hall. As an educator, he used his passion for music and his gift for explaining musical ideas to introduce classical music to an entire generation through his concerts and popular television broadcasts. In his most visible role, that of conductor, Bernstein achieved international fame (a first for someone born and trained in America), and he became America’s first true superstar of classical music.

“American audiences feel a special affinity to Leonard Bernstein, but he influenced people all over the world,” said Christoph Eschenbach. “It was my privilege to know him and his family well. He was a fountain of endless energy and his passion was infectious. The most important lesson he brought to the world was to find joy in music.”

As a musician and a human being, Bernstein saw music and life as inseparable. He wrote, “Life without music is unthinkable, music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.”

Week One: Bernstein’s West Side S tory, plus a Higdon concerto premiere

Concert Program, January 10-12, 15: The Bernstein Festival opens with a musical depiction of the great love story that inspired Bernstein’s brilliant Broadway musical West Side Story. Music Director Christoph Eschenbach leads Tchaikovsky’s passionate Romeo and Juliet and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Following them is a world premiere by a Philadelphia composer who embodies Bernstein’s diverse influences and adventurous spirit. Jennifer Higdon wrote her Concerto 4-3 for the Philadelphia-based string trio Time for Three, whose eclectic and animated performances have been a hit from coast to coast. The program closes with another depiction of doomed love: Tchaikovsky’s tempestuous Francesca da Rimini.

School Concert (January 11 and 29): Fittingly, for a festival celebrating one of music’s great educators, two School Concerts will be presented. Bernstein’s daughter Jamie carries on her father’s legacy as an educator as host of “The Bernstein Beat.” The program explores rhythm and focuses on the composer’s liveliest works. It includes selections from Fancy Free, Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), Mass, On the Town, Candide, and West Side Story. School Concerts take place at the Academy of Music on January 11 and in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall on January 29.

Festival Events: On January 9 at 7:00 p.m., the Bryn Mawr Film Institute presents a special screening of the 1961 film West Side Story. The groundbreaking film won 10 Oscars, including Best Motion Picture and prizes for directing, cinematography, costume design, sound, and more. The showing features the only remaining original print of the film, courtesy of film preservationist and historian Lou DiCrescenzo. Tickets are $9.25 and may be purchased at the door.

Following the concert on January 10, the audience is invited to stay for a Talkback session with composer Jennifer Higdon in Verizon Hall.

After the January 12 performance, concertgoers may join special guests and Orchestra members for a Musical Chairs Dessert Discussion at Cadence Restaurant in the Kimmel Center to discuss that evening’s program. Reservations are required, as seating is limited. Tickets are $21 (call 215.893.1999). Week Two: Bernstein’s “Jeremiah,” Higdon’s The Singing Rooms, and Schumann’s Second Symphony.

Concert Program, January 17-19: Leonard Bernstein’s powerful Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) portrays the destruction of ancient Jerusalem. The composer described the final movement, sung in this program by mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, as “the cry of Jeremiah, as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged, and dishonored after his desperate efforts to save it.” Bernstein wrote the work when he was 23 years old and performed it with the Pittsburgh Symphony in January 1944. Coming towards the end of World War II, the premiere was timely, and Bernstein soon led the work all over the United States and in Prague and Jerusalem.

The Orchestra premieres a second work by Jennifer Higdon during week two of the Festival: The Singing Rooms, written for violinist Jennifer Koh and the Philadelphia Singers Chorale. The work features six poems by Philadelphia poet Jeanne Minahan McGinn. Chair of liberal arts at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, she holds a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College. The program closes with a Bernstein favorite and a work of grandeur and beauty: Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2.

Festival Events: The Network for New Music’s popular Poetry Project takes place on January 16 at 8:00 p.m. in Perelman Theater. The event, titled “Poetry Project: A Song in Philadelphia,” takes on the question that moves composers and poets alike: “What inspires a song?” The Network Ensemble and guest soloists Susan Narucki, soprano, and Randall Scarlata, baritone, perform music by David Rakowski and Jennifer Higdon, and songs by Philadelphia’s next generation of composers and poets. The event is presented in partnership with The Philadelphia Orchestra as part of the Music Alive Program of Meet the Composer and the American Symphony Orchestra League.

Concert Programs (January 22, 23, 25): The Festival’s third week begins at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where Christoph Eschenbach pairs “Jeremiah” with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (January 22). Mr. Eschenbach and the Orchestra then return to Philadelphia with highlights from the previous two weeks: Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” and Higdon’s The Singing Rooms and Concerto 4-3 (January 23, 25). The January 25 concert is part of the Orchestra’s growing Global Concert Series, an innovative program of live concert distribution over the Internet2 network to remote venues.

Access Concert (January 24): Week three also includes an Access Concert titled “Be Cool!” and featuring the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts introduced classical music to new generations in a fresh and compelling way, and the Orchestra’s Access Concerts are their modern descendant. On Thursday, January 24, Christoph Eschenbach leads an exploration of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, touching on the work’s Latin rhythms and vibrant melodies. Still images and excerpts from the film place the music in context. A Mambo Dance Party follows (see Festival Events below).

Festival Events: The January 23 performance is followed by a free Postlude Recital in Verizon Hall. A collaboration between The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Network for New Music, the recital features the Orchestra’s associate principal flute, David Cramer, baritone Randall Scarlata, and pianist Linda Reichert performing Jennifer Higdon’s Bentley Roses, for low voice, flute, and piano.

After the Access Concert on January 24, the audience is invited to a Mambo Dance Party in Commonwealth Plaza. Instructors from the Society Hill Dance Academy will give free mambo lessons, and PECO Café will provide Mambo Martini drink specials and free appetizers.

Following the concert on January 25, the audience in Verizon Hall will have the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion about Leonard Bernstein. Panel members include Christoph Eschenbach, Barbara Haws (archivist and historian of the New York Philharmonic), Craig Urquhart (formerly Bernstein’s musical assistant and currently vice president of public relations for the Leonard Bernstein Office), Richard Ortner (president of Boston Conservatory and former general director of Tanglewood), and Orchestra violinist Davyd Booth. Philadelphia Orchestra Music Animateur Thomas Cabaniss serves as moderator.

Week Four: Bernstein, Barber, and Bell

Concert Program (January 31, February 1-2): The final week of the Festival features a program brimming with vitality. It opens with light-hearted dance scenes from Bernstein’s first Broadway show, On the Town. Superstar Joshua Bell offers up a double bill, with Samuel Barber’s intensely moving Violin Concerto (often called “the most beautiful American concerto ever written”) and the Suite from West Side Story, arranged for violin and orchestra. Philadelphia Orchestra Associate Conductor Rossen Milanov rounds out the evening with musical fireworks from the theater, including Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Scherzo à la russe.

More Bernstein: Beyond the Festival

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s December installment of its monthly podcast series, Podchestra, is dedicated to Leonard Bernstein. Listeners can visit to hear in-depth conversations with Christoph Eschenbach, Orchestra musicians, and special guests about Leonard Bernstein. The podcast will be available in mid-December.

Two Philadelphia Orchestra concerts in March and April also feature works by Bernstein. On Saturday, March 1, Jamie Bernstein returns to host another “Bernstein Beat” program, this time as part of the Orchestra’s Family Concert Series. On April 18 and 20, John Axelrod, a former student of Mr. Bernstein, leads the composer’s Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”). Based on a Jewish prayer for the dead, this dramatic work calls for a soprano soloist, speaker, chorus, and boy’s choir. Author, lecturer, and Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar, a personal friend of Mr. Bernstein, serves as speaker. --

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