Wineke: 100 years of Leonard Bernstein

Wineke: 100 years of Leonard Bernstein
John DeMain conducts the Madison Symphony Orchestra

Had he lived, legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year.

Bernstein, died in 1990 at age 72. This year, however, orchestras throughout the world are paying tribute to “Lennie,” who, among other things, composed “West Side Story.”

Among them is the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which, over the weekend, presented three tribute concerts featuring MSO music director John DeMain, who, as a young musician, worked with Bernstein, and pianist Christopher Taylor, a UW-Madison music professor who is a world-famous concert artist.

Although it was planned months ago, the concert program seemed especially well-suited for today’s news climate.

Taylor played Bernstein’s second symphony, “The Age of Anxiety.” The name comes from a W.H. Auden poem. It is a somewhat jarring piece of music that leaves the audience both thrilled with Taylor’s virtuosity and depressed at the tension and unease created by the score.

It seemed kind of a perfect end to a week of political drama, nightclub shootings and the wildfires that are still devastating California.

The second half of the concert featured Beethoven’s “Seventh Symphony,” reportedly Bernstein’s favorite, which is a truly joyous and uplifting work that left the Overture Hall audiences in evident good spirits.

Putting the symphonies back to back also demonstrated what a physically grueling task conducting a large orchestra must be.

There really aren’t any parts of either symphony that allow the conductor to slack off for even a few bars and, figuratively, catch his breath.

DeMain appeared nearly physically exhausted as he acknowledged a standing ovation at concert’s end.

The weekend concerts, in addition to highlighting Bernstein’s contributions, also acknowledged DeMain’s 25th anniversary with the MSO. The fact that a musician of Taylor’s character fits right in with the local symphony says much about the orchestra DeMain has developed during that quarter century.

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