September 11, 2008

A Musical Weekend of Falletta and Bernstein


By Dan Duke

The Virginian-Pilot

Bernstein. Tchaikovsky. Falletta.

With the three of them, this is a special weekend for classical music lovers in Hampton Roads.

Leonard Bernstein is the subject of a PBS program that airs tonight, and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 is the featured piece as the Virginia Symphony Orchestra opens its season Friday. JoAnn Falletta, music director of the orchestra, has a central role in both events.

Falletta hosts the "Berlin Celebration Concert" on PBS tonight, which looks at a landmark performance Bernstein conducted in 1989 just after the Berlin Wall came down.

On the TV program, she will set the scene for that historic performance in East Berlin on Christmas Day. Bernstein helped to quickly organize the event after the wall fell Nov. 9, as musicians from East and West Germany joined others from the United States, France, Russia and Great Britain to perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Bernstein, famously and controversially, decided that he had Beethoven's blessing in changing the wording from Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy," the poem that is part of The Ninth. Rather than sing an ode to joy - freude - he had the chorus sing an ode to freedom - freiheit.

The concert was televised in more than 20 countries. It was a crowning achievement in the career of Bernstein, who was ill at the time and died a year later.

Falletta is a natural fit for the program, as one of America's leading conductors and as someone who studied with Bern-stein on occasion at The Juilliard School in New York.

It was always an event when Bernstein, the man who put American classical music on the world map, came to Juilliard while she was studying there in the 1980s, Falletta said.

The room where the music class was conducted was jammed even tighter than usual by acting and dancing students who wanted to see him. Bernstein knew the value of being fashionably late, she said.

"He always seemed to time it to the point that it was unbearable."

Then, she said, in came the lion of American music, with his white mane, trailed by smoke from his cigarette in the ever-present holder, and by his entourage.

He wasn't like other instructors, teaching about tempo and technique. He discussed "passion and what the music meant emotionally and how to let our bodies be the vessels through which great music went," Falletta said.

"He often went right up on the podium with us ... and encouraged us physically and would be very hands on."

The outspoken man, however, was very gentle and encouraging with students, she said.

A photo of a young Falletta talking with Bernstein at Juilliard in the early 1980s illustrates another point about him. She remembers he was explaining something about the music in a quiet way.

They were surrounded by many people, but "he was saying something intimate to me."

It was typical of him that "he was able to screen out everything else and focus on what was important."

Bernstein possessed the unwavering focus to stand in front of dozens of fine musicians and a concert hall filled with discerning music lovers and lead them through a symphony, serving as a conduit for the composer, an interpreter of the music and a performer in his own right.

Now Falletta accepts that same challenge when her symphony performs Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with guest soloist Ian Parker.

She called it "a great, romantic gem" that's very difficult for the pianist.

Also on the program is Aaron Copland's "El Salon Mexico," the American composer's "postcard from Mexico." (As it happens, Bernstein was a great champion of Copland, recording almost all of his orchestral works.)

The third work on this weekend's program is Suite in F sharp minor, by Erno Dohnanyi, a Hungarian composer who moved to America to escape the communist regime after World War II and eventually settled in Florida.

Falletta is becoming a champion of his music. She recently released a CD of his Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 and plans to release another CD featuring his music.

She said he is an example of the many European composers who fled persecution and came to America and changed the nation's music in the process.

Dan Duke, (757) 446-2546, [email protected]

if you go

What Virginia Symphony Orchestra, led by JoAnn Falletta with guest soloist Ian Parker

When 8 p.m. Friday, Ferguson Center for the Arts, Newport News; 8 p.m. Saturday, Chrysler Hall, Norfolk; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Virginia Beach

Tickets $23-$83. (757) 892-6366 on tv

"Berlin Celebration Concert" airs on PBS at 8 tonight. header header

Originally published by BY DAN DUKE.

(c) 2008 Virginian - Pilot. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.