Arts & Minds: Ravinia Festival to celebrate Leonard Bernstein

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of that unique polymath, Leonard Bernstein—conductor, composer, pianist, teacher, writer, and all-around cultural enthusiast—and to celebrate, Highland Park’s Ravinia Festival is pulling out all the stops.

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Pictured is Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1989. Photo credit Walter Scott. Photo courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Starting this month, longtime Chicago arts critic Hedy Weiss pens a column exclusive to JUF News , shedding light on the vast arts scene in Chicago through a Jewish lens.

A birthday bash for Leonard Bernstein:

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of that unique polymath, Leonard Bernstein -- conductor, composer, pianist, teacher, writer, and all-around cultural enthusiast -- and to celebrate, Highland Park's Ravinia Festival is pulling out all the stops.

During the course of its summer season, Ravinia will present more than a dozen wide-ranging programs designed to capture the many and varied facets of Bernstein's work, from the classical music world to Broadway. It also will explore the music of the many composers he championed and the artists he influenced.

Overseeing all this activity along with Welz Kauffman, Ravinia's president and CEO, is Marin Alsop, music director of both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. One of Bernstein's last protégés, Alsop has been named the first "musical curator" in the Festival's 113-year history.

Marin Alsop has been named the first musical curator in Ravinia's 113-year history.


"Leonard Bernstein was my hero, my teacher, my mentor, and a symbol of what it means to be a human being in this world," said Alsop, whose first encounter with the man was at a festival in Germany in 1988. (A video of a workshop session with the two of them can be found on YouTube.) "But it was not until the next year, at the Tanglewood Music Center, that our relationship really developed."

As Alsop explained: "Bernstein was incredibly well-read, very engaged in current events, and curious about everything, so that a conversation with him could range from nuclear disarmament to British limericks, to the lyrics for every Beatles song," she said. "He was constantly on fire. But his real genius was the way he could connect all the dots in life. Everything he did informed everything else."

The Ravinia celebration will begin on July 12 as Alsop conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in a concert that will replicate Bernstein's final tour with the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra he led from 1958 to 1969, and with which he continued to be associated as "laureate" until his death in 1990. The program will include his ever-popular Overture to "Candide," his "Serenade" (with Joshua Bell as violin soloist in this concerto inspired by Plato's "Symposium" on the theme of love), and Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique)."

Alsop will return to the podium on July 14 to lead the CSO in a performance of Beethoven's monumental "Symphony No. 9," the work Bernstein famously conducted in Germany on Christmas day of 1989 in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (For that internationally televised concert, the work's "Ode to Joy" was even replaced with the words "Ode to Freedom.") Opening the program will be Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," a choral work set to the Bible's Psalm of David and sung in Hebrew.

A July 18 program marking the Ravinia debut of the Venezuelan-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel (music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic), will feature Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7," which was the centerpiece of the final concert Bernstein conducted at Tanglewood, just months before his death. On July 23, Alsop will return with a program titled "Mentors and Friends," featuring Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," as well as George Gershwin's jazzy "Rhapsody in Blue," one of Bernstein's favorite "party pieces."

On July 27, Bernstein's daughter, Jamie, will host an evening of music, anecdotes, and remembrances of her father in Ravinia's intimate Bennett Gordon Hall, with assistance from pianists Michael Boriskin and John Musto. And the following day, as part of the Festival's Kids Concerts Series, she will narrate "Leonard Bernstein: 100 Years Young," a contemporary riff on her dad's Young People's Concerts, the trailblazing series broadcast on CBS from 1958-1972. The Peoria Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Stelluto, will perform Bernstein's Overture to "Candide," "The Masque" (from "The Age of Anxiety"), excerpts from his Broadway musical, On the Town , and "Symphonic Dances" (from West Side Story ).

And all of that is just the beginning. On July 28, Alsop will conduct the CSO (to be joined by Vocality, the Chicago Children's Choir, and baritone Paul Szot) in Bernstein's "Mass," the elaborate work he was commissioned to write for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

"The 'Mass' is a hybrid piece -- part opera, part theater, and part mass," said Alsop, noting that it will be directed by Kevin Newbury. "You can hear a rock band sound one minute and a 12-tone meditation the next. I think it was 20 years ahead its time."

"Bernstein was always about finding a language that could break down barriers. He was always asking 'What is faith?' and 'How can we continue to have it given the state of the world?'.

And while audiences loved the piece from the start, some critics didn't initially warm to it, and there was some backlash from certain factions of the Catholic Church. For me it's one of the great 20th century works -- the story of a personal journey that deals with self-discovery and the embrace of difference, personal struggle, and acceptance."

Come August there will be many more Bernstein programs at Ravinia including: "Bernstein and Friends" (Aug. 10 in the Martin Theater), with soprano Nadine Sierra and tenor Michael Fabian, accompanied by Kevin Murphy, performing the composer's many songs; "Russian Glory" (Aug. 18), recalling the conductor's 1959 tour to the Soviet Union when the New York Philharmonic played Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 5; and "Mazel, Mahler" (Aug. 19), with Alsop conducting Mahler's Jewish-inflected "Symphony No. 1," plus Bernstein's "Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah)," with the story of the prophet told in Hebrew.

For a complete schedule and tickets to the Ravinia events call (847) 266-5100 or visit .

Helen Frankenthaler's prints showcased in Art Institute of Chicago exhibit:

The New York-centric art world of the 1950s was quite the male preserve, with the likes of such Abstract Expressionists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jasper Johns, and Mark Rothko in the spotlight. One major exception to the rule was Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), who grew up as part of a well-to-do, intellectual, Jewish family on the city's Upper East Side.

From early on, Frankenthaler -- whose career spanned six decades-displayed her talent as a lush colorist whose large, lyrical canvases were notable for their fluid, organic forms. But it wasn't until 1961, when she was invited to work at the newly established Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) print workshop on Long Island, that she tried her hand at lithography, etching, aquatint, and woodcut, and proved to be a master in those techniques as well.

"Helen Frankenthaler Prints: The Romance of a New Medium" -- on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through Sept. 3 -- is an exhibition featuring never-before-seen proofs and more than 50 prints by the artist. For more information visit .

+ Discovering the work of poet David Keplinger:


Poet David Keplinger will speak at Unabridge in Lakeview in July.


Recently, while browsing around Unabridged, a favorite independent bookstore in the Lakeview neighborhood, I happened to pick up a copy of Another City: Poems (Milkwood Editions), a captivating new collection of work by David Keplinger. A widely traveled writer and teacher, his many interests include "the poetry of witness" ranging from the American Civil War to the Holocaust. I also found a copy of his earlier collection, The Clearing , which includes a lean but haunting poem, "Waking on the Pribor Train, Near Freud's Birthplace."

Keplinger will visit Unabridged at 7 p.m. on July 26 for a reading and book signing. For more information, call (773) 883-9119.

Hedy Weiss was the Theater and Dance Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984 to 2018 and currently writes for WTTW-TV's website and contributes to the Chicago Tonight program.

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