The National Repertory Orchestra celebrates Leonard Bernstein with a screening of “West Side Story” and a free concert
Music has been an essential part of cinema for almost as long as the medium has existed. Even in the era of silent films, musicians accompanied the views on the screen.
The National Repertory Orchestra and Breck Film recognize the interconnectedness and team up for events each year, screening films like “The Wizard of Oz” and “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” alongside a live performance by the partition.
This year, the National Repertory Orchestra celebrates the life of renowned composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein with a two-day event. He’s known for creating the songs for musicals like “West Side Story,” “On the Town” and “Candide,” and he’ll soon be the subject of Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro.”
“Leonard Bernstein was kind of the musician we all look up to,” said Dave DePeters, CEO of the National Repertory Orchestra. “He is the epitome of an American musician. Not just a great musician, but also a voice for social justice, equity and inclusion in music.
Unlike past events, no scores will be performed live in tandem with the screening of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” scheduled for Wednesday, July 27. Instead, Leonard Bernstein’s music will be heard the day before, Tuesday July 26, during a free concert at the Dillon Amphitheater with an appearance by his daughter Jamie Bernstein.
Musical director and conductor Michael Stern said he combined both the work of Leonard Bernstein with the work of other composers to create an upbeat, summery mix of popular music. On the program, compositions by Giuseppe Verdi, Pietro Mascagni, Bedřich Smetana, Georges Bizet and a solo by violinist Minkyung Lee for the piece by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns.
However, the highlight of the evening is “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” a bespoke creation by Leonard Bernstein himself. Stern said he likes that it’s a cohesive sequel instead of a mash-up that brings together the musical’s greats. He said he admires the way it follows the show’s arc, and – like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” play from which it draws inspiration – it doesn’t end with a grand finale.
“The ending is quite tragic,” Stern said. “For 1957, a quiet, enigmatic ending like that of a Broadway show was pretty sweeping. It was a stunning theatrical tour de force, and ‘The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story’ ends the same way.
Although the following day’s screening does not feature a live concert, Jamie Bernstein and Stern will host a Q&A after the 2021 film. Stern invited Jamie Bernstein to Breckenridge after the pair did a similar talk in Connecticut , where Stern worked with the Stamford Symphony.
Yet their relationship goes back further than that. His father, violinist Isaac Stern, was a friend and colleague of Leonard Bernstein. Michael Stern was born after ‘West Side Story’ premiered on Broadway, but the show holds a special place in his heart. He said the music is now part of the national soundtrack because of his hero.
“He was a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, author and lecturer,” Stern said. “He changed, in a very fundamental way, how music looks and feels in America in the 20th century.”
For the film’s remake, Stern appreciates how Spielberg brought back Rita Moreno — who played Anita in the 1961 version of the film — to play a new character. Stern is also a fan of how choreographer Justin Peck built on Jerome Robbins’ dances with moves that jump off the screen.
“A Fourth Brother”
For Jamie Bernstein, the film righted the wrongs of the previous film. Spielberg cast Latino actors to play the Sharks and removed the brown face. He also corrected the film’s arrangements, which Leonard Bernstein did not work on, and asked questions related to Bernstein’s music.
According to Jamie Bernstein, his father focused on other parts of his career at this time and was not a fan of how the music ended up in the film.
“He didn’t like it, but he didn’t feel entitled to complain because he hadn’t been involved in the project,” Jamie Bernstein said.
Jamie Bernstein didn’t see the musical when it opened because she was only 5 at the time and her parents thought it was too violent. Still, the 9-year-old girl and her siblings fell in love with the 1961 film. Because it became such a big hit, they call it their fourth sibling. Her favorite songs change frequently, but currently she’s partial to “Cool” and “Somewhere,” which Jamie Bernstein says is a deep piece that has become an ambitious anthem to make the world a better place.
Being surrounded by music naturally led her to develop a passion for this medium. Jamie Bernstein tried to become a folk/rock singer-songwriter as a young adult, but feeling embarrassed and worried about comparisons to her father, she decided to focus on her marriage and raising children.
“Maybe if my dad hadn’t been quite the luminary he was, maybe I would have been a musician myself and progressed,” Jamie Bernstein said. “But it was too hard to compete with him in my head.”
It wasn’t until after his father’s death in 1990 that Jamie Bernstein became interested in preserving his legacy. Before that, she said they just thought of him as a dad who played tennis and puns, swam, told jokes and ate corn on the cob with them.
As Leonard Bernstein educated children about classical works with his “Young People’s Concerts”, Jamie Bernstein began to introduce his father’s works to children around the world with “The Bernstein Beat”. It turned into reciting concerts by other composers, giving people a roadmap through the arts, and she found herself with a new career that recently saw her penning the memoir “Famous Father Girl”.
“My whole life has taken a turn and turned into something else, and it’s been extremely rewarding and really fun,” Jamie Bernstein said. “But I certainly didn’t see it coming. It just shows you that life can start at 50. You never know where life will take you.
Jamie Bernstein has no anxiety when talking about music like she did when performing. She will speak to the musicians of the National Repertoire Orchestra about music activism and advocacy, about how to be a citizen musician to bring about positive change like her father.
DePeters hopes the sense of awareness will continue through the orchestra beneficiary concerts and stay with the musicians after they leave the program.
“I used to worry about escaping his shadow, but I’m not a spring chicken anymore,” Jamie Bernstein said. “Who cares? I just like to live my life and have fun with it. His shadow is no longer oppressive to me. It’s very interesting to me now.