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SF Symphony celebrates Bernstein centennial

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Leonard Bernstein, left, and Michael Tilson Thomas appear at the premiere of Bernstein’s “Arias and Barcarolles.” (Courtesy San Francisco Symphony)
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The San Francisco Symphony is observing the late Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday with a big celebration this week marking the composer, conductor, teacher and mentor’s spirit and legacy through his music.

“He was a great friend to many people, and gifted us all with his tremendously adventurous spirit,” says San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, a Bernstein colleague who counts himself among those friends.

Called by critics “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history” and “one of the biggest, most colorful, most popular and recognizable figures in American classical music,” Bernstein (Aug. 25, 1918-Oct 14, 1990) introduced generations of listeners to classical music with his Young People’s Concerts and assisted hundreds of musicians with their careers.

Bernstein’s career skyrocketed at age 25, when he substituted for the legendary Bruno Walter at the New York Philharmonic; MTT did a similar star-is-born turn at 24, replacing the ailing William Steinberg in the middle of a Boston Symphony concert.

Bernstein, who became the New York Philharmonic’s first American-born music director, took MTT, 26 years his junior, under his wing.

MTT pays tribute to Bernstein throughout the symphony’s season beginning this weekend with programs showcasing “widely varying sides” of Bernstein’s work.

An excerpt from his comic operetta “Candide” was part of the recent gala opening, and his “groundbreaking” musical “West Side Story” and song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles” are featured in concerts this week.

The song cycle is especially close to MTT’s heart because he participated in its premiere in 1988.

Describing Bernstein’s opera “A Quiet Place” and “Arias and Barcarolles,” MTT says they reveal the composer as a “masterful musical conjurer.”

“He is so amazing in transforming tone rows from angry ostinatos to scat riffs, bluesy ballads or Mahlerian adagios. The music is so clever, yet engaging and satisfying to follow. But the essence of music and life for him was communication. His work poses questions and conundrums but also offers solutions,” MTT says.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, also featured at the symphony’s recent opening, says that as a young person encountering Bernstein in person, he was struck by the conductor’s “unique combination of fearlessness and vulnerability.” Ma, an 18-time Grammy Award-winner, credits Bernstein’s influence on his career, calling him “one of the greatest role models for any musician of any time.”

IF YOU GO
San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 22-23, 2 p.m. Sept. 24
Tickets: $35 to $159
Contact: www.sfsymphony.org
Note: The program includes “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” with clarinetist Carey Bell, “Chichester Palms” with the S.F. Symphony Chorus, “Arias and Barcarolles” with vocalists Isabel Leonard and Ryan McKinney and “Symphony Dances” from “West Side Story”;pre-concert talks at 6:30 p.m. and 12:30 p.m. feature Bernstein scholar Humphrey Burton and MTT.

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