Leonard Bernstein in 1970, leading the student musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Lenox, Massachusetts.Photo Credit : Heinz h. Weissenstein/Whitestone Photo, courtesy of BSO Archives
This May, Hollywood unveiled plans for not one but two major movies about conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein: The American, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Bernstein, starring Bradley Cooper. Whatever buzz the dueling biopics generate, though, is likely to be drowned out by the thunder of more than 2,500 events being held around the globe to mark 2018 as the centenary of Bernstein’s birth in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Of all the institutions paying homage to the maestro, looming largest is the Boston Symphony Orchestra and especially its summer home, Tanglewood, which tops off a full season of Bernstein programming with a birthday gala on August 25 featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, Audra McDonald, and no fewer than five world-class conductors.
Bernstein’s ties to Tanglewood go back almost to the start. In 1940, the three-year-old music festival opened an academy—now the Tanglewood Music Center—for young performers, composers, and conductors. In that first session was a 22-year-old Leonard Bernstein, recently out of Harvard. He was one of only five students accepted to a master class with BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky, with whom he formed a lasting mentor-protégé bond (the two would refer to each other affectionately as “Kouss” and “Lenushka”). In a letter home to his former piano teacher, an excited Bernstein reported: “[Koussevitzky] said today that I will certainly be the greatest (!) conductor, if only I will work hard.”
What Koussevitzky saw then, the world would soon recognize. Over the years Bernstein became internationally famous as both a conductor and the composer of works such as West Side Story and Candide. Yet even as his celebrity grew, he faithfully returned to Tanglewood virtually every summer to teach and conduct.
In 1990, despite failing health, Bernstein led Tanglewood’s season-ending concert; he had to be helped offstage afterward and put on an oxygen tank. That the maestro passed away less than two months later recalls a T.S. Eliot quote Bernstein himself used to describe his connection to Tanglewood: “In my end is my beginning.” —Jenn Johnson