A Year of Bernstein: Our 2018 UK Performance Guide

Our guide to the Bernstein’s greatest hits, and the orchestras performing them this year.

A Year of Bernstein: Our 2018 UK Performance Guide

As we enter the year of Bernstein’s centenary, orchestras across the UK are joining in the celebrations and commemorating the life of the composer. 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. 

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.’


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.  

‘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.’

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here