SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Symphony pianist and associate conductor Ardean Watts wept when Leonard Bernstein died on Oct. 14, 1990.
The morning following Bernstein’s death, Watts played the composer’s “Mass” over the sound system in his University of Utah classroom.
With tears streaming down his face, Watts looked at his students and told them the great composer had died.
Bernstein, who died at 72, was born Aug. 25, 1918, and this weekend, the Utah Symphony kicks off a celebration of the composer’s birth centennial with performances that aim to showcase the breadth and diversity of Bernstein’s works. The celebration begins Friday, Feb. 23, with pianist Conrad Tao’s rendition of “Age of Anxiety” and concludes later this year on Nov. 9-10 with a semi-staged production of Bernstein’s popular operetta “Candide.”
Watts, who died last year at 89, isn’t the only one in Utah’s arts scene who revered Bernstein. Paul Meecham, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera president and CEO, is particularly excited for the symphony’s upcoming celebration, called “Bernstein at 100.” He recalled watching Bernstein conduct Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 at London’s Royal Albert Hall in the 1980s — a performance that has stuck with him ever since.
“Of course I spent the whole time watching up from the nosebleed seats — just watching him — because he is so mesmerizing to watch … . But what I remember most about the performance was … I (didn't seem) to take a breath. I just remember it being one complete arc of a performance … it was incredible."
Bernstein was buried with a copy of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, and his deep love of Mahler set him apart from other conductors of his day, according to Meecham, who said that Mahler’s pieces were often viewed as unwieldy, requiring “great orchestral forces” because of their length.
“When it came to repertoire, I think the fact that (Bernstein) championed Mahler when nobody else was championing Mahler was highly significant and is the reason why Mahler is a much more accepted composer," Meecham said. "… (Bernstein’s) personality, he felt things very strongly and wore his heart on his sleeve, and I think Mahler’s music is like that sometimes.”
The idea for "Bernstein at 100" came from music director Thierry Fischer, who once performed in an orchestra in Munich under the direction of Bernstein, who was then nearing the end of his life.
“When you have an American artist like Bernstein — he’s a legend,” Fischer said. “His piano playing, his composing, his conducting and his commitment to education … he was involved in so many aspects of what music can bring to a community, to a society."
The Utah Symphony's tribute to Bernstein begins Friday and Saturday with Tao's performance of the jazz-infused Symphony No. 2, also known as the “Age of Anxiety," a 1949 piece based on a W.H. Auden poem of the same title.
Tao, a 23-year-old pianist based in New York, first heard "Age of Anxiety" when he was around 11 years old, and even at that young age, he was instantly moved by the piece.
"That’s actually a pretty good time for this piece to arrive in someone’s life," he said. "It's a very earnest piece, it's a very emotional piece and it's a very ambitious piece ... When I discovered (it), it was just a very emotional experience, because it was very moving to encounter a work that aims to even tackle these things at all, these huge topics.”
The following weekend, March 2-3, will include performances of Bernstein’s choral work “Chichester Psalms," to be directed by Barlow Bradford, and the orchestral work “Divertimento."
These three stylistically diverse pieces reflect "three strong sides of (Bernstein's) personality," according to Fischer, while also showcasing the composer's "creativity and innovative way of writing music."
Fischer added that he's especially looking forward to performing "Candide" in November, as the piece was his introduction to Bernstein. Fischer first heard "Candide" on the radio as a teenager in his Geneva home — located about 10 miles from the grave of Voltaire, the French author of the novella "Candide" on which Bernstein's operetta is based.
While celebrating Bernstein, the Utah Symphony will also be making history with its upcoming performances, as the next two weekends allow the orchestra to complete one of its goals for the 2017-18 season: Become the first American orchestra to record all five of French composer Camille Saint-Saens’ symphonies.
On Feb. 23 and 24, in addition to accompanying Tao, the symphony will perform Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” and Symphony No. 1 — to be recorded live for the European record label Hyperion. The orchestra will complete the Saint-Saens cycle with Symphony in A Major, recorded live the following weekend on March 2-3. Hyperion will then release the orchestra’s performances of all five symphonies on three CDs.
But as the Saint-Saens cycle comes to a close, the commemoration of Bernstein is only beginning.
"When it’s the year (Bernstein) should have been 100 years old, I would have felt really embarrassed not to have a massive celebration for such a legendary American artist," Fischer said. "I really wanted to pay a very, very strong tribute to him.”
If you go …
What: Utah Symphony presents “Bernstein at 100”
When: Feb. 23-24, 7:30 p.m.; March 2-3, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $15-$83