Bravo Bernstein! San Francisco celebrates Lenny

The great American composer Leonard Bernstein would have been 90 this year, and the man who gave us the memorable music for West Side Story, Candide and other Broadway shows, among all his other symphonic work, is being celebrated in style.

The San Francisco Symphony leads the celebration with Michael Tilson Thomas, a longtime friend and colleague of the late composer, conducting an all-Bernstein program Sept. 17-19. The program includes some of his show music — West Side Story, Trouble in Tahiti, Fancy Free and On the Town – as well as Meditation No. 1 from Mass, scenes from A Quiet Place and “To What You Said” from Songfest.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw, baritone Quinn Kelsey and cellist Peter Wyrick are the soloists. Tilson Thomas, Upshaw and the Symphony will perform the same program on Sept. 24 to open Carnegie Hall’s 2008-09 season.

The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco is also part of the Bernstein celebration with a screening of the PBS documentary Reaching for the Note, which delves into Bernstein’s musical and personal life. The screening is free at 7 p.m. Nov. 20 but reservations are required.

At 8 p.m. Dec. 4, pianist Jeffrey Siegel offers The Anniversaire Pieces, Bernstein’s musical tributes written for friends, family and fellow composers, as well as Meditation on a Wedding and El Salon Mexico.

Cantor Roslyn Barak presents Lenny’s Voice: Bernstein’s Humor and Jewish Spirit at 7 p.m. Dec. 4.

Also in the series is JCCSF’s benefit event: 100% Michael Feinstein – Bernstein and Friends on Nov. 23 with cocktails at 5 p.m. and the concert at 7 p.m. when Feinstein reprises his Carnegie Hall tribute to his friend and mentor.

Recalling his friend, Tilson Thomas recently told an interviewer: “If Leonard Bernstein were here right now and asked to comment on his 90th birthday, I know he would say, `I didn’t compose enough.’ He was so busy being an entertainer and educator that he lost years and years of time. Now we wish, along with him, that he had written more. He was interested in so many different musical genres. In this program we’re doing in honor of what would have been his 90th birthday, we are going to try and celebrate the range of his musical interests. So there will be some of the most familiar music from some of the great shows and ballets, but also some really challenging pieces that come from his last opera, A Quiet Place, as well as a kind of gala show of music—some of the most mournful, some of the most irreverent, some of the most blithely innocent, some of the most self-consciously tortured: the whole range of the possibility of his music to amuse, to delight, to provoke, to question.”

And thinking about the Bernstein legacy, Tilson Thomas said: “Bernstein continues to have a great influence on all the people he taught and trained and influenced. Over the course of time, it may be that the language of his music will become more remote from audiences, but I think there will still be a certain kind of heart inside of it that will always be recognized as symbolizing a particular period in the United States, when people were very confident and very generous. To me, he represents someone from the generation of young victors of the Second World War—who, looking out at the world from the United States, which was pretty much in an all-triumphant position, still had such an interest in celebrating the cultural tradition of other nations: the great European traditions, the South American traditions, Asian traditions. Bernstein was already in that place long before it was as politically fashionable and correct as it is now. He had a courageous and generous spirit, and I think such spirits make a difference.”

The San Francisco Symphony performs its all-Bernstein program Sept. 17-19 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$130. Call 415-864-6000 or visit

For information about the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s Bernstein events, call 415-292-9933 or visit

Now here’s four minutes of heaven as Bernstein conducts the overture from Candide: