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Leonard Bernstein centennial will get major play in Tucson

Leonard Bernstein was renowned worldwide for his flamboyant conducting style as well as his talent as a composer, pianist and educator. (Paul de Hueck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
George Hanson (left), now director of the Tucson Desert Song Festival, and Leonard Bernstein review a score at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1983. (Courtesy George Hanson)

Tucson will be marking the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein in a very big way. “Bernstein at 100 — A Celebration of the Life and Music of Leonard Bernstein” will take place from Jan. 16 through Feb. 4, 2018. The Tucson Desert Song Festival, under the direction of George Hanson, has slated a series of 30 artistic events to be presented over 18 days. The wide range of musical performances, films, symposia, lectures and master classes will illuminate the tremendous scope of Bernstein’s musical body of work. More than a dozen performing arts organizations in Tucson are partners in what Hanson calls “the most collaborative project undertaken in the cultural life of Tucson. Nowhere else in the world, as far as we know, can a listener experience the full spectrum of Bernstein’s genius in such a short period of time.”

Bernstein composed in nearly all styles of music, from classical to Broadway, and from popular to jazz.  His compositions range from small intimate works to operas to film scores to full symphonies. Hanson has crafted a representative program of events that he says will not only illustrate Bernstein’s force as a composer, but will focus a lens on his talents as a conductor, pianist, and educator — a man whose dynamic and wide-ranging musical creativity elevated him to world-class standing.

“Bernstein at 100” is the brainchild of Hanson and Eric Holtan, director and founder of Tucson’s True Concord Voices Orchestra. Representative of the collaborative nature of the festival, True Concord will perform a chamber version of one of Bernstein’s seminal works, “Mass,” together with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus and the University of Arizona Dance Ensemble, with baritone Jubilant Sykes in the role of the Celebrant, on Jan. 26 and 28 at Centennial Hall.

“Mass” was a typical example of how Bernstein’s artistic powers operated, says Hanson, a former assistant to Bernstein for approximately seven years.

“Bernstein said that to achieve something great, two things are necessary. First you need to have a plan and second, not quite enough time,” Hanson recalls.

The maestro, he explains, got creative by way of procrastination; under the pressure of an impending deadline, he would work himself up into a manic state and the resultant adrenaline would trigger his creativity. Though the technique was effective most times, Bernstein tempted fate once too often, says Hanson, and did indeed miss the original deadline for completing “Mass,” which Jacqueline Kennedy had commissioned him to write for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1971.

The Tucson International Jewish Film Festival, celebrating its 27th year, will collaborate on “Bernstein at 100” with a screening of the film “On the Waterfront” on Jan. 20 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.  Shira Brandenburg, TIJFF director, says she finds the entirety of the Bernstein event to be amazing and is delighted the TIJFF is participating: “Leonard Bernstein wrote only one original film score in his career, and it was for the multi-Oscar-winning film, ‘On the Waterfront.’”

Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s daughter and an artist and performer in her own right, is Tucson Desert Song Festival artist-in-residence and will be a special guest of the TIJFF. She will introduce the screening of “On the Waterfront” and be available for a Q and A at the conclusion of the film. “Jamie will dive into the background of her father’s work on this piece, sharing details from one of the best-known figures in American music,” says Brandenburg. Jamie Bernstein will also participate in the Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of “Kaddish” in the character of the narrator, a role that she has re-written.

Hanson is committed to promoting maximum Tucson Jewish community attendance at “Kaddish” (also known as Bernstein’s 3rd Symphony), which will be performed on Friday, Jan. 19 and on Sunday, Jan. 21 at the Tucson Music Hall. “We want the TSO to see that there is a strong desire in the community to attend and support important Jewish cultural events. People are going to treasure their memory of seeing ‘Kaddish’ for the rest of their lives,” says Hanson, “but they have to be there.” To that end, and as a means of making the music more accessible, Hanson says, the TSO is offering group-priced tickets to Tucson’s synagogues. With sufficient interest, Hanson proposes to come to each participating synagogue to give a talk about “Kaddish.” His pre-concert insights will enhance the experience of seeing the work, which has never before been performed in Tucson. Bernstein drew inspiration for his symphony from the Hebrew prayer recited for the dead and “Kaddish” demonstrates how he wrestled with his religion.

Further exploration of Bernstein’s religious roots and offshoots will take place at a symposium entitled “Leonard Bernstein’s Jewish Heritage.” Panel participants will include Hanson; Jamie Bernstein; J. Edward Wright, director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona; and Daniel Asia, professor of music at the UA’s Fred Fox School of Music. Collaborating partners, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, the Tucson J and TSO will present this program at the J on Monday, Jan. 22 at 7:00 pm.

In anticipation of “Bernstein at 100,” the J is hosting a preview concert on Tuesday, Dec. 19 at 6:30 pm. “The Bernstein Centennial Celebration Concert” will feature student singers from the Fred Fox School of Music, who will give a free hour-long performance featuring a mezzo soprano with a piano accompanist. A question and answer discussion will follow.

For information regarding “Bernstein at 100” festival venues, times and tickets, visit For more information on the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival, visit

The Tucson Desert Song Festival is presented in partnership with Arizona Early Music Society, Arizona Opera, Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, Ballet Tucson, New York Festival of Song, True Concord Voices & Orchestra, Tucson Guitar Society, Tucson International Jewish Film Festival, Tucson Jazz Festival, Tucson Symphony Orchestra, UA Fred Fox School of Music, and UA Presents.

Renee Claire is a freelance writer living in La Serena, Chile.