Keeping the Faith: Marin Alsop reveals and revels in Leonard Bernstein's everlasting power

By Kyle MacMillan

About five years ago, Ravinia began looking ahead to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Knowing the milestone would be a massive worldwide event, Welz Kauffman, the president and chief executive officer of Ravinia, was eager for the summer festival to contribute in a meaningful and distinctive way. And he knew exactly who should be his partner in the project—internationally recognized conductor Marin Alsop, one of Bernstein’s last protégés and his only female one.

“I thought, what I want for the Ravinia audience, if we can pull it off, is somebody who’s going to see the full picture of Bernstein, had a personal relationship with him and can conduct the stuff like crazy. I want somebody who I enjoy talking to. There’s selfishness to it, I guess. I’ve just always found her to be extraordinary,” says Kauffman, who was an artistic administrator with the New York Philharmonic when Alsop made her guest-conducting debut there in December 1999 as part of an Aaron Copland festival.

In addition to holding a succession of conducting posts, including her current roles as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil, Alsop has followed Bernstein’s beat as an articulate spokeswoman and innovative advocate for classical music. She has also been a leading champion of his music; a boxed set of her complete Bernstein recordings on the Naxos label was released earlier this year. As a testament to her multifaceted accomplishments, she is the only conductor to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”—an honor she received in 2005.

In May 2017, Ravinia announced the appointment of Alsop as Ravinia’s first-ever artistic curator for its multi-year celebration of Bernstein’s centennial. She and Kauffman have collaborated on six concerts featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between July 12 and August 19 this season, as well as discussions and other supporting events with members of Bernstein’s family and his biographer Humphrey Burton, among over a dozen concerts that tie back to the great American musician. “I’m running around the world doing all of these Bernstein celebrations,” Alsop says, “but this will be unique because we can really focus in one place during a rather condensed period of time.”

It is no surprise that thousands of events globally are scheduled this year in tribute to Bernstein, whose legacy only seems to grow with each passing year since his death in 1990. In a 2011 poll of 100 top maestros by BBC Music Magazine, he was named the second-greatest conductor ever—a high-flying ranking that would alone assure him immortality. But his prowess on the podium was only the start of what made him such an extraordinary figure—“a kind of miracle man,” in Kauffman’s words. The challenge for him and Alsop was getting a handle on his wide-ranging accomplishments and conveying them in a concise, cogent way to Ravinia attendees.

“He was not only a great conductor and a great composer,” Alsop says. “He was also a great thinker. He was a great humanist. He was a great agitator. He was a great TV star. How do you try to capture that, not just the one dimension that people know about Bernstein, but the broad legacy that he left and how he transformed not just classical music but certainly musical theater and education in many ways? I think he transformed our idea of what the maestro as a citizen of the world could be.”

Ravinia’s varied centennial programs this summer will highlight different facets of those accomplishments. The opening July 12 concert with Alsop leading the CSO, for example, shows off Bernstein as both composer and conductor. It re-creates a program from his final tour with the New York Philharmonic, one that brought him to Ravinia in 1986. It will feature Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and his Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), a 1954 five-movement concerto for solo violin, strings, and percussion with Joshua Bell as soloist, as well as Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique.” The July 23 program with Alsop and the CSO, by contrast, features the music of his mentors and friends—Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with jazz pianist Makoto Ozone, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. “There is none of Lenny’s music on that, right? Yet there’s no program more exemplary of Lenny than that particular program,” Kauffman says.

Bernstein was also a pioneering educator whose televised “Young People’s Concerts” in 1958–72 with the New York Philharmonic set the standard for how classical music could be explained to children (and adults) in a down-to-earth, compelling manner. Alsop went to one of those concerts with her father when she was 9 years old. She doesn’t remember what repertoire she heard, but she recalls Bernstein turning around and talking to the audience, making it seem easy to enjoy classical music without all the strictures and fussiness too often associated with it. She knew immediately that she wanted to be a conductor. “That fundamental, life-changing experience for me has informed everything I’ve done,” she says. “And the idea of talking to people about classical music always seemed very natural to me, and I’m sure that’s in large part thanks to being exposed to Bernstein at such an early age.”

On July 28, Bernstein’s daughter Jamie—a writer, broadcaster, and lifelong advocate of her father’s music, for whom he imagined scripting his “Young People’s Concerts”—will narrate a new generation of the program for Ravinia’s Kids Concert Series. Titled Leonard Bernstein: 100 Years Young, the morning event features conductor George Stelluto and the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, soprano Michelle Areyzaga (an alumna of the Steans Music Institute, Ravinia’s conservatory for professional musicians), and young student clarinet, violin, and piano soloists.

“We want people to feel like they’ve gained insight into this person,” Alsop says, “that they’ve seen the true Leonard Bernstein and what his huge contributions were on all of these levels, but also feel entertained. So it’s really trying to balance things—how much talking as opposed to how much music. Welz is open to all kinds of crazy ideas, so it’s been fun to work with him.”

The only disputed side of Bernstein’s legacy has been his standing a composer. At the time of his death, many critics were willing to concede his stellar accomplishments in the realm of musical theater with works like West Side Story, but some of his classical pieces were downplayed or dismissed altogether. But all that has changed in the quarter-century since his death. Perhaps no creation is more indicative of these changing perceptions than Bernstein’s Mass, a cross-genre theatrical work commissioned for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It was derided at its debut by New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg as a “pseudo-serious effort” that was “cheap and vulgar.” But Mass is more and more seen as a masterpiece, a work decades ahead of its time with its inventive fusion of musical styles.

“When Bernstein was alive,” Alsop says, “it was very difficult for people to separate Bernstein, the bigger-than-life persona, from the Bernstein, the composer. Almost impossible. With time having passed, his music can be listened to and perhaps assessed without any baggage—just for pure music’s sake. I think when one can do that, one sees the absolute genius in this composer. I’ve felt this from the minute I got to know his music, particularly his ‘serious’ music, that it’s some of the greatest stuff ever written.”

The first thing Alsop and Kauffman agreed on was presenting the rarely heard Mass as the centerpiece of this summer’s Bernstein tribute at Ravinia, and everything else followed from that. The 1¾-hour work will be showcased July 28, with Alsop shepherding 275 singers and musicians, including the 100-voice adult choir Vocality. Completing the headcount will be the CSO, Chicago Children’s Choir, Highland Park High School Marching Band, and baritone Paulo Szot in the central role of the Celebrant plus a cast of 22 as the Street Chorus.

Alsop calls Bernstein her “hero.” She first connected with him in 1987 as a student at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in northern Germany, and subsequently was chosen as a conducting fellow in the summers of 1988 and 1989 at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, MA. In the months in between, she studied with him privately, and in 1990, he asked her to go with him to Japan for the opening of the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo. “So, I was with him until right before he passed away,” she says.

Among the lessons Alsop carries with her from her time with Bernstein is his “unbelievable commitment” to the composer. He saw conductors as “mere messengers” who are responsible for understanding a musical narrative and communicating it to listeners. “His music is all about exploring this concept of faith, whether its faith in humanity or faith in spirituality,” she says. “And for him, often in his music, it’s a simplistic idea, but the way he executes it is anything but simplistic—this idea of tonality versus atonality, which was so prevalent and so topical when he was at the height of his composing career. And it becomes a symbol for a crisis of faith. Knowing him really enhances that narrative for me.”

But she tries to bring that same responsibility she feels toward Bernstein’s music to every other composer as well, just as he would have wanted. “People sometimes thought, he’s too flamboyant or too this or too that,” she says. “But I understood that Bernstein was actually channeling the composer he was conducting always. When he was conducting Mahler’s Ninth [Symphony], he felt he was Mahler. He was really feeling it. And that was an incredible inspiration to watch as a young conductor.”

Although future plans have not been announced, Alsop’s curatorship is open-ended. Ravinia intends to continue its Bernstein celebration at least a few more years because of the wealth of his accomplishments in so many spheres. Alsop noted that this year’s schedule does not allow her time to work with the artists at Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, something she intends to do in 2019. Future looks at Bernstein might explore his wider work in musical theater, for example, or tie into other anniversaries.

“I don’t think it’s going to be as opulent as this summer every single year, but it could be,” Kauffman says. “Who knows? There’s certainly plenty of work to do.” ▪

Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.