The Fresno Bee
February 22, 2018
by Joshua Tehee

Leonard Bernstein was a superhuman musician.

He was an accomplished pianist who could conduct entire orchestras while playing the most complicated of works. He was famous for putting classical music on television, with the popular Young People’s concerts that aired on CBS from 1958-72. He conducted the New York Philharmonic through most of that same era while earning a reputation writing music for movies and Broadway. Bernstein is the reason you can hum the “On the Waterfront” theme and know every song in “West Side Story.”

“He did it all,” says Rei Hotoda, music director for the Fresno Philharmonic, which presents its tribute to the composer at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Saroyan Theatre.

This concert is part of “Bernstein at 100,” a two-year, worldwide celebration of what would be the composer’s 100th birthday. (He was born Aug. 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Mass., and died Oct. 14, 1990 in New York City.)

The serenade

The centerpiece of the concert is Bernstein’s “Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium,” for violin and orchestra. The piece is a dialog between the soloist (in this case guest artist Jennifer Koh) and the orchestra, Hotoda says. It is loosely based on Plato’s dialogue “The Symposium,” which depicts a drinking party in which the guests deliver a series of speeches about the nature of love.

Fun!

Bernstein referred to it as “funny, serious music,” Hotoda says. The piece was written in 1954, around the time Bernstein was working on “On the Waterfront” and can hear those elements in the music.

“You hear elements of jazz, the Broadway influences,” she says.

Two degrees of separation

Hotoda has a reason to want to honor Bernstein. She has fairly direct connection with the famous conductor. Her mentor, Marin Alsop, was a protégé of Bernstein and one of his best-known students. She is leading much of the “Bernstein at 100” celebration.

What Hotoda learned from Bernstein, by way of Alsop, was a love for stories.

Bernstein loved stories and would relate them at every possible turn – in rehearsals and during performances.

“He would always gather a story or embrace a story in everything he conducted, in everything he composed,” Hotoda says.

“Every piece has a story.”

If you can impart that on the audience, if they can understand the story, they can immediately relate to music, she says.

The Americans

Bernstein was the voice of American classical music, but he was stalwart on all levels and throughout his career championed new music.

So, while his “Serenade” is at the heart of the Fresno Philharmonic’s performance, it gets bookended by the works of two other American composers – John Adams and Aaron Copland.

The show opens with Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” a visceral and rhythmic minimalist piece that Hotoda likens to a Lamborghini. It ends with Copland’s “Symphony No. 3,” a piece that was written at the end of World War II. It is a journey of human experience that ends with the spirit-raising “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

For Hotoda, showcasing this music was the perfect way to honor Bernstein’s legacy of exposing American classical music to a mass audience.

“We cant let these pieces of music sit on a shelf, lifeless.”