Grand Rapids Symphony Concert Celebrates Leonard Bernstein's Centennial

Grand Rapids Symphony Concert Celebrates Leonard Bernstein's Centennial

The music of Leonard Bernstein, who composed the music for West Side Story, has graced concert halls and theaters, radios and televisions in homes all across America. This year, the centennial of his birth, the world remembers the life and legacy of the great American composer, conductor, pianist, and educator.

The Grand Rapids Symphony joins in the worldwide celebration of Leonard Bernstein's centennial with a concert featuring his Overture to Candide, his Symphony No. 2 "Age of Anxiety," and selections from his Broadway hit, West Side Story among others.

Guest conductor Carl St. Clair will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Bernstein's 100th on Friday, November 2 and Saturday, November 3 at 8 p.m. at DeVos Performance Hall. The performance in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series concert will feature pianist Benjamin Pasternack in "Age of Anxiety" and soprano Celena Shafer in selections from West Side Story and other vocal works. Guest artist sponsor is the Edith I. Blodgett Guest Artist Fund.

Leonard Bernstein first came to the world's attention with his impromptu conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943. Bruno Walter was meant to lead the orchestra in a radio-broadcasted performance, but came down with the flu. The 25-year-old assistant conductor was called upon to conduct in his stead.

Bernstein remembers that fateful day in a 1991 interview with his brother, Burton Bernstein: "When it came to the time - that very day - all I can remember is standing there in the wings shaking and being so scared. There was no rehearsal. I had just come from seeing Bruno Walter, who very sweetly and very quickly - wrapped up in blankets because he had the flu - went over the score of Don Quixote with me."

With few hours to prepare and no rehearsal, Leonard Bernstein stepped up to the podium in Carnegie Hall to conduct a successful performance, broadcast to the entire nation, launching him into stardom.

Bernstein wrote several orchestral, choral, chamber, and operatic works over the course of his lifetime, but his music also ventured into the realms of theater, ballet, and musicals. The line between the classical and theatrical in Bernstein's music was often blurred. He once said, "If the charge of 'theatricality' in a symphonic work is a valid one, I am willing to plead guilty. I have a deep suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theater music in some way."

Bernstein's enthusiasm for music was contagious, and it spread across the country with his starring role in the memorable CBS television program, Young People's Concerts, with the New York Philharmonic.

Carl St. Clair, music director of the Pacific Symphony and guest conductor for the Grand Rapids Symphony's Bernstein's 100th, was one of many who benefitted from Bernstein's mentorship.

St. Clair first saw Bernstein on his television set at his childhood home in Texas. He was waiting for friends to pick him up to go to a country and western dance when Bernstein appeared on the TV, leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. St. Clair was mesmerized both by the music and Bernstein. Needless to say, he missed the dance.

Bernstein and St. Clair didn't cross paths until the summer of 1985 while Clair was studying under Gustav Meier at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in western Massachusetts.

"I was very nervous," St. Clair recalled. "He comes into the room, and there's a big double door and we're all standing in total respect. He greeted Gustav, of course they had known one another... But almost immediately he said, in this kind of Texas accent, or, in a Bostonian/Texas accent, 'Where's that cowboy from Texas? I've never met a cowboy from Texas who's also a conductor.'"

During rehearsals for a concert at Tanglewood in 1990, complications with his health left Bernstein unable to conduct his new version of his Arias and Barcarolles, which was to be premiered the next day. The suggestion was made that St. Clair could conduct that piece, allowing Bernstein enough energy to lead the rest of the program.

"I'll never forget," St. Clair says. "He looked over at me, and even as sick as he was and as disappointed as he was, it just shows how quick he was - he looked over at me and in a mock Texas accent said, 'Cowboy, you got it in ya? You got it in ya?"

St. Clair agreed to conduct Bernstein's piece in what was Bernstein's last concert appearance. He retired from conducting and passed away nearly two months later at the age of 72.

Bernstein no longer is with us, but his music lives on in performances such as the Grand Rapids Symphony's Bernstein's 100th on Nov. 2-3.

• Inside the Music, a free, pre-concert, multi-media presentation sponsored by BDO USA, will be held before each performance at 7 p.m. in the DeVos Place Recital Hall.

• The complete Bernstein's 100th program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, March 24, 2019, at 1 p.m. on Blue Lake Public Radio 88.9 FM or 90.3 FM.


Tickets start at $18 and are available at the Grand Rapids Symphony box office, weekdays 9 am - 5 pm at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100, (located across the street from Calder Plaza). Call (616) 454-9451 x 4 to order by phone. (Phone orders will be charged a $2 per ticket service fee, with a $12 maximum.) Tickets may be purchased online at

Tickets are available at the DeVos Place ticket office, weekdays 10 am - 6 pm or on the day of the concert beginning two hours before the performance.

Full-time students of any age can purchase tickets for $5 on the night of the concert by enrolling in the GRS Student Tickets program, sponsored by Calvin College. Discounts are available to members of MySymphony360, the Grand Rapids Symphony's organization for young professionals ages 21-35.

About the Grand Rapids Symphony

Organized in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony is nationally recognized for the quality of its concerts and educational programs. Led by Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and Associate Conductor John Varineau, nine concert series in a wide range of musical and performance styles plus educational and community outreach programs combine to offer more than 400 performances per year, touching the lives of some 200,000, nearly half of whom are students, senior citizens or people with disabilities. Affiliated organizations include the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus; Grand Rapids Youth Symphony; and Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus as well as the biennial the Grand Rapids Bach Festival, which returns in 2019. GRS collaborates annually with Opera Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Ballet and semiannually with the Gilmore Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo.

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