Six years after welcoming Jamie Bernstein to Houston for the concert “Music in the Key of Joy,” the Houston Chamber Choir is bringing her back to celebrate her famous father Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday in “Tonight, Tonight Won't Be Just Any Night: Lenny @ 100.”
“We’ve called it ‘Tonight, Tonight Won’t Be Just Any Night’ because our aspiration is for this to go beyond just a recitation of some popular pieces, but to really try to get to some of the significant aspects of this remarkable, one-of-a-kind musician,” says Robert Simpson, the choir’s founder and artistic director. “We’re really hoping to do something more than just a concert, but to come away feeling as if we know and understand and appreciate Leonard Bernstein even more deeply than when we came to the concert.”
Simpson says he too has gotten a deeper understanding of Bernstein as he’s done research for the concert, saying it’s been “truly awe-inspiring to come in contact with his intellect and his talent.”
“The thing that many people who know Broadway don’t also know is that he could have never composed a note and been remembered as one of America’s great conductors, or he could have turned away from conducting and only written music and be remembered as one of America’s great composers, or he could have turned away from both and just gone into academia and be known as one of America’s great educators,” says Simpson.
In fact, Serge Koussevitzky, noted music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, once told a twentysomething Bernstein to give up composing because he felt it would take away from conducting, which Koussevitzky believed to be his true genius – but there were others who said the exact opposite.
“He fought to find a balance in his life, throughout his life – how to make his contribution as a conductor, as a composer, as an educator just as deep and as profound as possible. He could not deny any of those facets.”
Though audiences are quite familiar with Bernstein’s work, Simpson believes people don’t always recognize “the extent to which his genius spanned every phase of music,” but Simpson certainly did as began working on the evening’s program.
“I wanted to first of all convey his wonderful music written for voices, both sacred music and secular music, music for sacred text and for Broadway and plays, but I also wanted to incorporate the features of his character that I thought were very important.”
For this reason, Simpson says the concert will begin by getting to know “this bright kid from Boston” in a section called “Lenny from Lawrence.” (Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts.) Important early experiences will be represented by performances of Louis Lewandowski’s “Hallelujah,” a piece Simpson says Bernstein would have heard at his synagogue, and Boston Latin School’s 1935 class song, a tune Bernstein wrote with a friend upon graduation – and the first he ever put a double bar on.
“It’s just what you’d expect a high school senior to write: ‘All for one and one for all. Sharing each success or fall; all too soon has come the parting to worldly realms beyond our wall,’” laughs Simpson. “It’s just perfect.”
The text will be printed in the program, so the audience can join in on this one, before the concert moves into Bernstein’s early years and collaborations in New York, his sacred music compositions and also his passion for communication and teaching.
The evening concludes with a section called “L'Chaim,” in which the choir will sing several of the pieces Simpson feels sum up Bernstein’s life, dreams and hopes, including “Somewhere” from West Side Story; “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide; and a piece from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, “Take Care of This House.”
“It is a song that is sung as a hope for the future as those who are in the White House in earlier days passed the tradition on and the meaning of the White House on to future generations,” says Simpson. “It has a particularly poignant feeling for all of us.”
And, of course, Jamie Bernstein, herself a noted arts and education advocate, will be present to talk about her memories of her famous father.
“This is going to be a family affair,” says Simpson. “Jamie’s very, very expert at drawing everyone around her, almost like we’re all in the living room and she’s going to tell us some family stories.”
Together, Jamie Bernstein and the Houston Chamber Choir will celebrate not only her father’s compositions (which Simpson describes as having “rhythms, melodies that go where you don’t expect them to go, but after you’ve heard them you think it could only have been that way”), but also his love of music.
“We might be able to open the hood and look at the engine and marvel at some of the intricacies of its design, but that’s not what music is for. You just step back and look at this beautiful piece of music and you know it touches your heart. What Leonard Bernstein was able to do was to take classical music and make it accessible without dumbing it down and make Broadway music very intricate and very scholarly without it becoming dry or uninspiring,” says Simpson. “He brought the intellect to Broadway music and he brought the heart to classical music, and everybody gets to enjoy that.”
“Tonight, Tonight Won't Be Just Any Night: Lenny @ 100” is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. May 12 at South Main Baptist Church, 4100 Main. For information, call 713-224-5566 or visit houstonchamberchoir.org. $10 to $40.