Think of Leonard Bernstein and Ludwig von Beethoven and a few similarities come to mind: unruly hair, excitable temperament and prodigious musical talent. Not to mention both were musical revolutionaries devoted to social justice.
Beyond that, said Piotr Gajewski, founder, music director and conductor of National Philharmonic at Strathmore, was Bernstein’s affinity for Beethoven’s works. In one of the momentous events in the American conductor-composer’s life, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its majestic choral movement, “Ode to Joy,” at the fall of the Berlin Wall.
National Philharmonic is now presenting its second concert entitled Bernstein & Beethoven, in a program of Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and Beethoven’s Ninth.
Sung by a boy soprano and the National Philharmonic Chorale, “Chichester Psalms” was composed on commission from the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England for its 1965 summer festival. The texts – sung in Hebrew – include complete Psalms 23, 100 and 131, with a few verses from Psalms 2, 108 and 133.
“The composition stands out as perhaps the most Jewish work of Bernstein, who struggled with his faith all his life,” said Gajewski. “It is also one of his best-known compositions.”
The “Ode to Joy,” featuring four soloists – soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone – and a chorus, reflects the composer’s passionate belief in the Enlightenment and his conviction that all people are brothers and sisters, said soprano Esther Heideman.
The symphony is the “ultimate feel-good piece, chosen for many special occasions,” she said. Protestors sang Ode to Joy at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and it became a type of anthem in the wake of 9/11.
The idea of linking the two composers is not new, said Gajewski. The early 1980s saw the creation of a PBS miniseries called Bernstein/Beethoven (now available on DVD). It featured Bernstein conducting all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies and commenting about him and his music.
“As it happens, in 2018, we celebrated the Bernstein centennial; in 2020, we will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth,” said Gajewski. “All of this made it irresistible not to somehow to feature the two composers, separated in history by almost exactly 150 years, in several side-by-side presentations.”
The conductor noted that Beethoven was the first composer to include a chorus in a symphony. He seized on the idea of presenting one (and four vocal soloists) in the final movement of Symphony No. 9.
“He was taken by (German writer) Schiller’s Ode to Joy. The poem inspired what is now one of the most recognizable melodies in the history of mankind,” he added.
As the poem’s setting begins, the key of the symphony changes from D minor, a key associated with gloom and death, to D Major, a very happy and joyous key in D Major. “The Symphony No. 9 was very well received from its first performance and continues to be a favorite of music fans,” Gajewski said
The other singers are Shirin Eskandani, mezzo-soprano; Colin Eaton, tenor; Kevin Short, baritone; and Enzo Baldanza, boy soprano
Music aside, would the two geniuses have gotten along? Hard to say, Gajewski speculated.
Personality-wise, they were very different: Beethoven a recluse; Bernstein always the center of any party. Beethoven always struggling with ideas and taking much time to work them out; Bernstein always full of new ideas while always writing, writing and writing.
In the end, Beethoven’s life was overtaken by his physical condition, the deafness that almost derailed his career.
“For Bernstein, his demise was a little more self-inflicted,” said Gajewski.
“Bernstein & Beethoven” Part 2 takes place Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m. – with a pre-concert lecture from 6:45-7:15 – at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda. www.nationalphilharmonic.org.