Great Performances: Carnegie Hall Opening Night

Wed, 10/29/2008 - 10:00pm

Pictured: The late Leonard Bernstein.

Photo Credit: New York Philharmonic Archives; background: Bjorg Magnea.

Opera stars Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Hampson, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Broadway’s Christine Ebersole join Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in the all-Bernstein Carnegie Hall Opening Night 2008, airing on Great Performances Wednesday, October 29 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

The evening, recorded September 24, marked the opening salvo of the four-month Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, a New York City-wide salute to the composer, conductor and educator presented by Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the 90th anniversary of his birth and 50th anniversary of his appointment as New York Philharmonic music director.

Featuring selections ranging from the 1944 ballet Fancy Free through West Side Story (1957) to his final opera, A Quiet Place (1983), the telecast offers a virtual sound portrait of Leonard Bernstein’s life. “His music is intensely biographical,” says Tilson Thomas, a close friend and colleague of Bernstein, who first met the maestro in 1968 and, in 1971, succeeded him as conductor of the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts on national TV. “The pieces do reflect his early, middle and late years,” Tilson Thomas says, “optimistic, reflective and then the concern that somehow all the disparate themes will come out in the end, that there will be some kind of resolution and peace.”

Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, certainly Bernstein’s most famous work, opens the program, followed by selections from A Quiet Place, with Hampson and Upshaw as the battling Sam and Dinah, an unhappy married couple based on Bernstein’s own parents. On the lighter side, Ebersole scores with the randy I Can Cook Too from On the Town, then joins Upshaw, Hampson and Ma for Ya Got Me from the same show.

Other highlights: Meditation No. 1 from Mass (Ma), What a Movie! from Trouble in Tahiti (Upshaw), To What You Said from Songfest (Hampson and Ma) and Gee, Officer Krupke from West Side Story (students of The Juilliard School). The orchestra itself gets another chance to shine with the slinky, hip-swaying Danzon from Fancy Free.

Music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and laureate conductor from 1969 to 1990, Bernstein (1918-1990) brought his own particular New World sensibility to classical music. Equally at home in a Broadway theater or concert hall, the beloved “Lenny” — who performed at Carnegie Hall more than 400 times during his career — had an enthusiasm for and understanding of music far beyond his classical realm, extending into jazz, world music, American song, and 1960s pop and rock.

A popular presence on television — his Young People’s Concerts introduced an entire generation to classical music — he was a particular favorite of Great Performances' audiences. Beginning with the series’ first full season in 1973-74, when Mass became Great Performances' first music program, through 1988’s Bernstein at 70 from Tanglewood, he was never far from a series camera. More recently, his Candide in Concert was a highlight of the 2004-2005 season.

Tilson Thomas, who also hosts Carnegie Hall Opening Night 2008, which inaugurates the hall’s 118th season, assumed his post as the 11th music director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in 1995, consolidating a strong relationship with the orchestra that began some two decades earlier. In 1974, at age 29, he made his debut with the group leading Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. His tenure has been praised for innovative programming and for bringing the works of American composers to the fore, as well as attracting new audiences to Davies Symphony Hall. He last appeared on Great Performances in 2004’s two-part examination and performance (with the SFS) of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, part of the orchestra’s groundbreaking PBS television series and multimedia project Keeping Score.