Ahead of this weekend's Bernstein celebrations at the BBC Proms, we've compiled a list of some of Bernstein's greatest hits, and the concerts they feature in this year. Grab your calendar, and begin planning your year of Bernstein.

This weekend...

Saturday 25 August: On the Town

The August bank holiday at the BBC Proms is being taken over by tributes to Bernstein to mark 100 years since his birth. The celebrations kick off with a concert performance of On the Town, with Nathaniel Hackmann and Louise Dearman taking on the roles of Gabey and Hildey. They will be accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of John Wilson, who also conducted the concert performances of West Side Story earlier in the Proms season.

On the Town follows the adventures of three sailors on leave for 24 hours in New York City in 1944. The story traces their day and night, and the girls they meet along the way.

London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Wilson

Sunday 26 August: The Sound of an Orchestra

The BBC Proms are paying tribute to Bernstein's televised productions in this concert. Bernstein was renowned for making classical music accessible by engaging viewers via television, and this is just what this Prom should achieve. Words, projections and music come together in this performance, with an eclectic programme of works including Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Ligeti's Apparitions, Debussy's La mer and Beethoven's Egmont overture.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Joshua Weilerstein

Monday 27 August: Chamber works

This lunchtime Prom will take place at the Cadogan Hall, featuring a recital of works by Bernstein and his contemporaries. The programme is featured below. The concert will also feature a world premiere of a song by British-Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk, in response to Bernstein's recipe settings, La bonne cuisine.

Conch Town is an early, unfinished ballet of Bernstein's, and features the song we now know as 'America' from West Side Story.

Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Sikich, Ian Farrington (pianos)
Toby Kearney, Owen Gunnell (percussion)

Bernstein La bonne cuisine
Bushra El-Turk Crème Brûlée on a Tree (BBC commission, world premiere)
Bernstein 'Big Stuff' from Fancy Free
Bernstein Conch Town (UK premiere)
Copland Pastorale
Barber 'Sea Snatch' and 'The Monk and His Cat' from Hermit Songs, Op. 29
Blitzstein 'Modest Maid' and 'Stay in my Arms'
Sondheim 'The Miller's Son' from A Little Night Music
Bernstein 'What a Movie!' from Trouble in Tahiti

Monday 27 August: Symphony No. 2

Monday's Prom features two works by Bernstein: Slava! (A Political Overture) and Symphony No. 2, 'The Age of Anxiety', both conducted by Bernstein's protégée Marin Alsop.

The concert's programme is politically charged, particularly as its closing work is Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, which is loaded with meaning as a protest against Stalin's Soviet regime. Bernstein's Second Symphony, 'The Age of Anxiety', is based on WH Auden's poem of the same name, which was published in 1947 following the end of the Second World War. It is preoccupied with trying to find meaning and faith in a post-war world.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (pianist) with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop

Still to come...

24 November: Chichester Psalms

Following a request from Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1963, Bernstein wrote the Chichester Psalms whilst on sabbatical from his post as Music Director for the New York Philharmonic, a period in which he focussed heavily on composition.

‘The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of Psalm 2, or some part of it’ wrote Reverend Hussey in letter to Bernstein. ‘Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.’ The Dean was a champion of arts, having previously commissioned a litany and anthem by W.H. Alden, a sculpture of the Madonna and child by Henry Moore, and the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb by Benjamin Britten.

Bernstein used many vocal writing techniques associated with church music, yet wrote the lyrics in Hebrew. The piece became a plea for peace in Israel during the difficult conflict there, and, unlike ‘Kaddish’, it is a piece full of hope for unity.

Marin Alsop conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at Chichester Cathedral.

Bernstein Symphony No. 1, ‘Jeremiah’ (Michelle de Young, mezzo soprano)
JS Bach Motets
Bernstein Chichester Psalms

The Chichester Psalms return home this year, under the baton of Marin Alsop, whose schedule is shaping up to be extraordinarily full! Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra will be joined by the three cathedral choirs who sang in the original performance in 1965 – Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester.

More like this

‘Performing Chichester Psalms at Chichester Cathedral is the perfect tribute to Bernstein’, says Marin Alsop. ‘This brilliant and very personal piece embodies Bernstein’s faith in humanity, innocence and youth.’

The ones you've missed...

27 January: Songfest

Originally commissioned as a work in celebration of the American Bicentennial Year in 1976, Songfest wasn’t completed in time. However, Bernstein persisted nonetheless, and the orchestral song-cycle finally premiered in the November of that year with the New York Philharmonic.

The work features 13 poems spanning the 300 years of the country’s history, by the likes of Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, EE Cummings and Edgar Allen Poe. These eclectic styles of poetry celebrate the melting pot of America’s multicultural society, and the subject matter focuses on the American artist’s experience.

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Charles Abell at the Barbican in London.

Bernstein Candide Overture
Bernstein Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’
Bernstein Songfest

6-7 April: MASS: A Theatre Piece for singers, players and dancers

Originally intended to be a traditional Mass, Bernstein’s MASS ultimately became something rather different. With its mix of sacred and secular texts, it is staged theatrically and features both liturgical passages in Latin as well as text in 20th-century vernacular by Bernstein and Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz. It explores the crisis of faith experienced by many Americans during this era.

MASS begins with a street chorus expressing their doubts of the necessity of God and the role of the Mass itself. The celebrant, a Catholic priest who conducts the Mass, bursts into a rage, before surrendering and reflecting over where his faith has gone. After this moment of catharsis, an altar server sings a hymn of praise to God and restores the faith of the chorus. Coming full circle, MASS ends with a hymn asking God for his blessing.

Premiered in September 1971, MASS initially received immensely negative reviews, with the Roman Catholic Church being particularly disapproving. However, the mixing of musical genres has become much more commonplace over the years, so much so that in 2000 Pope John Paul II requested a performance of it at the Vatican.

Chineke! Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Marin Alsop at the Royal Festival Hall.

Bernstein MASS: A Theatre Piece for singers, players and dancers

27 April: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

West Side Story took Broadway by storm in 1957. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it explores gang rivalry in the Upper West Side of New York City in the mid 1950. Tony from the Jets and Maria, sister of the leader of the Sharks, fall in love despite their different ethnic backgrounds and gang associations.

Placing older musical theatre traditions alongside New World influences such as jazz and Latin styles turned out to be a winning combination for Bernstein, and it remains his most famous work, winning him dozens of awards globally.

The Symphonic Dances are a concentrated form of the choreographic music, and are independent of the stage production.

Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Cristian Macelaru at Usher Hall in Edinburgh, and at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 27 April.

Bernstein Chichester Psalms
Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Barber Symphony No. 1 (in one movement)

To tie in with their Bernstein season, the RSNO are also hosting an ‘In Focus: Leonard Bernstein’ event, which will feature musical extracts, interviews and archive footage, hosted by RSNO violinist Bill Chandler. On 5 May (in Glasgow) they will be performing Bernstein’s MASS in collaboration with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

31 May: Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’

In this five-movement concerto for violin and orchestra, Bernstein again draws inspiration from literature. The serenade is based on Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical text set at a banquet of well-known figures from Ancient Greece, including philosopher Socrates and playwright Aristophanes. A symposium was the traditional end of a banquet, when eating made way for drinking, music and discussion. In Plato’s text, the attendees take turns in praising Eros, the god of love and desire.

The serenade continually introduces new themes, then going on to examine and develop them in new ways, just as the dialogue in Plato’s text does.

The piece was written in 1954 during Bernstein’s hugely productive decade for composition.

Liza Ferschtman with the Brussels Philharmonic at Cadogan Hall.

Guillaume Conneson Le tombeau des regrets
Bernstein Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’
Bernstein Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Speaking to BBC Music Magazine, Liza Ferschtman says, ‘The Serenade has its own unique voice, great thematic writing and incredible instrumentation. I find it a pity when people think that his classical repertoire was somehow secondary to his lighter works. It really stole my heart, and I’m really keen to find a much larger audience for it.’


Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.