The Cold War finally was nearing an end.
In 1989, after decades of oppression, the Berlin Wall cracked open and thousands of East Germans poured through the opening from communist-dominated East German into the West.
In December, Leonard Bernstein, 71 years old and in failing health, traveled to Berlin to conduct a historic performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
In 10 months, the American conductor and composer would die of cancer. But not before conducting an international orchestra and chorus of musicians from Germany as well as from the United States, Russia, England and France, the four World War II allies that had occupied Berlin after the fall of the Nazi regime.
The first concert was timed to end at midnight on Dec. 23 when the border fully opened for the first time in 28 years. The second was held on Christmas Day in East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus before an audience of 1,000 plus over 100 million people watching on TV in 20 countries.
“I am experiencing a historical moment, incomparable with others in my long, long life,” Bernstein told the audience.
The conductor, the son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, revered Beethoven, but he would alter one word in the text of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” changing the German word “freude” or “joy” for the word “freiheit” or “freedom.”
“Bernstein’s identification with Beethoven was long lasting, and more than just musical,” according to Kerry Candaele and Greg Mitchell in their book, “Journeys with Beethoven,” which tells the story of Bernstein’s 1989 trip to Berlin.
The Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates the music of both Beethoven and Bernstein in concerts on Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, in DeVos Performance Hall.
Tickets, starting at $18 adults, $5 students, are available from the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or online at grsymphony.org. A free, pre-concert conversation, “Upbeat,” begins at 7 p.m. each night.
Guest conductor Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera and a frequent Bernstein interpreter, makes his debut with the Grand Rapids Symphony for the ninth concerts of the 2016-17 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series along with pianist Orli Shaham, countertenor Patrick Dailey, and the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony isn’t on the program, though Music Director Marcelo Lehninger conducts it next season in May 2018 with the Symphony Chorus to conclude the 2017-18 Grand Rapids Symphony season.
Instead, the program includes Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and his Choral Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, plus Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and his concert suite from his film score to On the Waterfront.
Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy frequently is viewed as an early version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, given similarities between the two pieces in structures, themes, harmonic sequences and texts.
Shaham, an internationally acclaimed pianist who has been hailed by critics on four continents, joins chorus and orchestra for the performance. Shaham has performed with nearly all of the major orchestras in the world, notably with the American symphony orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and internationally with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Dailey, who performed with Aretha Franklin on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration at the Let Freedom Ring Celebration honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., will be vocal soloist for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Bernstein composed the work using texts from the Hebrew Bible for solo boy soprano or countertenor, to represent the biblical David, in the piece featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony.
Beethoven’s famed Leonore Overture No. 3, one of four he wrote for his only opera, Fidelio, opens the concert including Bernstein’s Suite from On the Waterfront will round out the program. The 1954 film stars Marlon Brando as a dock worker, laboring under the thumb of domineering bosses. Though Bernstein composed the score for the crime drama, it’s only a starting point for this orchestra suite.
Throughout his long career in music, Bernstein conducted music by Beethoven frequently, believing Beethoven’s music represented the “struggle for peace, for fulfillment of spirit, for serenity and triumphal joy.”
Experience it for yourself with the Grand Rapids Symphony this weekend in DeVos Performance Hall on Friday and Saturday, April 21-22.