On Nov. 14, 1943, a 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein made his debut as a conductor for the New York Philharmonic in a concert that was broadcast on national radio.
Called in to replace an ailing Bruno Walter, Bernstein was catapulted into international fame.
During the centennial year of his birth and beyond – the composer-conductor was born on Aug. 25, 1917 – many musicians have paid tribute to him. Usually they play his music – which includes “West Side Story” and “Mass” – or the music he loved, such as the works of Johannes Brahms.
The National Philharmonic Orchestra took a similar approach for part of its season, but is now switching gears for its next concert by replicating the exact program the New York Philharmonic was playing when Bernstein took the podium.
“The Debut Concert,” as it is called, features: “The Overture to Manfred,” by Robert Schumann, based on a poem by Lord Byron; “Theme, Variations and Finale, Op. 13,” by Miklos Rozsa; “Don Quixote,” by Richard Strauss, inspired by Cervantes’s classic novel and “Prelude to Die Meistersinger,” from a Richard Wagner’s opera.
“Everyone focuses on how Bernstein took over on short notice, but no one has paid note to the actual music he conducted,” said Piotr Gajewski, NPO’s music director and conductor. “We had a different idea.”
The 1943 concert was “exceptional” by today’s standards, he added, in that the program was “unusually eclectic,” with a unique format.
Concerts today usually start with a brief prelude, then conclude with a larger work. The New York Philharmonic began and ended that concert with a prelude, and two more-substantial pieces in the middle. The larger is “Don Quixote” – in variations and theme form, for cello, viola and orchestra.
“It’s a tone poem, which means it tells a story through music,” said Zuill Bailey, a soloist and chamber musician who plays the cello parts. These represent the aging title character, fancying himself a knight.
The viola – played by Roberto Diaz – is the musical stand-in for Sancho Panza, Quixote’s squire, whose vulgar wit, wide girth and common sense differentiate him from his mad idealistic master.
Why did the composer make those musical choices?
“I can only say what my opinion is,” Bailey replied. “The cello is the wise instrument, which sounds thoughtful and can portray the human voice in all its extremes – the way we speak, moan, shout. It’s the instrument that most resembles the human voice, and has a circle of emotions, including death.”
The viola, in contrast, is “more jovial.”
Whatever the composer’s reason, “it’s hard to imagine any other instruments than the ones Strauss selected for this piece, including the winds (instruments) for the bleating sheep” Quixote and Panza encounter, Bailey said.
The sound and feel of the cello have always appealed to him, even when the musician was only four.
“It’s the way you embrace it; it’s very comfortable, with beautiful timbre,” he said. “The instrument really stuck with me.”
In Bailey’s musical family, moreover, the violin, piano and clarinet were already taken. Now his son, 11, also plays the cello. Although solo repertoire for the cello may be less extensive than that of the violin, Bailey performs widely.
“But my relationship with the National Philharmonic has been special,” he said.
Bailey has more than 20 recording titles to his credit – including Brahms and Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano – and is a Grammy Award winner.
Shortly after the NPO concert, Bailey and Diaz will be recording the “Don Quixote.”
“The Debut Concert” takes place at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m. www.nationalphilharmonic.org. For tickets, call 301-841-8595.