An Ode to Bernstein: 6 reasons Leonard Bernstein was a classical music superstar

I have long admired American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Not only do I love his musicworks that have been enjoyed and listened to by both music theorists and lovers of popular musicbut I also respect him as an engaged activist showing support for social issues like racial equality and LGBT issues.

He was a superstar in his time and his music is still amazing today. Many know him for his musical West Side Story (I love this clip of the gym scene from the movie version with Jerome Robbins’s choreography), and while I think that this piece is a huge reason to give him superstar status, here are six more reasons that Bernstein rocks my socks.

#1 He was an incredible concert pianist

Bernstein’s first love was the piano and he often was featured as a concert pianist in his younger days playing pieces like Ravel’s concerto in G (he conducted and played the piano part in London). His virtuosity at the piano also helped him conduct musicals from the piano when necessary.

#2 His orchestral and choral works will blow you away

As a composer, some of Bernstein’s greatest works were his works for orchestra. He wrote 3 symphonies and a variety of other works for orchestral instruments. One of the works which stands out to me is his second Symphony, the Age of Anxiety, which features the piano in an almost concerto-like way. I remember seeing the piece performed when I was an 8th grader and being impressed by the pianist’s virtuosity and the orchestral color of the piece. I love this YouTube video setting an excerpt of the Age of Anxiety with paintings by Piet Mondrian. You can hear the whole piece this weekend, February 23 and 24, at Abravanel Hall. In addition, Utah Symphony and the Utah Symphony Chorus are doing Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms March 2-3, 2018.

#3 He broadcast lectures about classical music

As part of NBC’s Omnibus series, discussing science, arts, and humanities, Bernstein gave lectures about music using the NBC Symphony Orchestra discussing composers, conducting, and modern music. One of the first was his discussion about Beethoven’s 5th symphony. He also invested in the future of classical music with his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.

#4 His work took both the musical theatre and opera worlds by storm

Along with West Side Story, Bernstein was known for several other Broadway shows including On the Town and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Bernstein also composed the operas Trouble in Tahiti and Candide. I love the original recording of Barbara Cook singing “Glitter and be Gay,” but recently discovered Kristen Chenoweth’s delightful recording of the aria.

#5 He was an internationally-renowned conductor

Bernstein’s influence extended to the concert halls of the world as a virtuoso conductor on par with Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Not only did he elevate many of the great orchestras of the United States, but he was internationally recognized while conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and while conducting at La Scala in Milan. One of my favorite videos of Leonard Bernstein features him conducting with his face and eyebrows, and nothing else.

#6 He had a strong sense of social responsibility

Bernstein drew upon his music and own life experiences to help others. He was outspoken about injustice, and he used his music and visibility to draw attention to issues like socioeconomic inequality and integration of arts into education among many others. One of my favorite quotes by Leonard Bernstein is this:

“This will be our reply to violence. To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

He used music for this purpose throughout his entire life.

Paul Leland Hill is a member of the education staff at Utah Symphony Utah Opera. When he is not handling outreach for the opera to the community, you can find him singing in the chorus of the Utah Opera and composing music.

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Off-Score: A look into the off-stage passions of Utah Symphony members

Principal Flutist Mercedes Smith strives to empower youth through the natural structure and leadership opportunities an orchestra provides.

“I’ve been here for five and a half years,” Smith said. “It’s such a beautiful place to live, it’s so wonderful waking up and seeing the mountains every morning.” Prior to living in Utah, Smith lived in Dallas as the Principal Flutist for the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet Orchestras. In her free time, she loves to cook, work with non-profit organizations, practice yoga, and slowly but surely renovate her home.

In March of 2017, Thierry Fischer and 14 Utah Symphony musicians volunteered during their spring breaks and teamed up with BLUME Haiti (Building Leaders Using Music Education) to teach 100 young Haitian musicians. Every section of the symphony, with the exception of tuba and harp, was represented. “I was slightly hesitant at first because it was my vacation week,” said Smith, “but I went and had the best time. It’s such a beautiful place.”

“The people are so positive despite all the hardships they’ve been through. They don’t lack in intelligence or work ethic, just opportunities, so we went there to create the opportunities for them.”

The musicians worked with students from 9 AM to 1 PM. “We would do everything from the basic fundamentals of scales and tone exercises, to private lessons, to masterclasses. Really anything that filled up four hours.” Following their instruction, the students rehearsed for their concert as an ensemble with Maestro Thierry Fischer.

She taught five young adults that all had their own students. Pupils that were too old for the program could audit the class, and students that were too young benefitted from trainings their teachers received. “There were around 100 students in the program last year, but I think we reached closer to 1,000, and that’s in schools all throughout Haiti,” she said.

Before arriving in Haiti, Smith had no idea what to expect. “I was surprised at the high level some of them played at,” she said. “It’s clear that had they had the opportunities that we have here in the U.S. … they would have been able to excel far more than the level they were currently at.”

Political crises, natural disasters, and economic struggle make upward-class mobility extremely difficult. “It’s nearly impossible to get out of the middle class—and it’s not like our middle class. It really is poverty.” BLUME Haiti provides leadership opportunities, teaching youth that they are not stuck—differences in their community are possible.

After returning from Haiti, Smith continued to think about music as an agent of social change. “The thing is, we have a bit of this problem in our own country too,” Smith admits. “Kids that are poor tend to stay poor, or I guess we’re now starting to understand that not everyone has the same upward mobility that we may have once had.” She partnered with Salty Cricket Composer Collective’s ‘El Sistema,’ a non-profit after-school music program that provides 17 hours of after-school music instruction, free of charge to Jackson Elementary students in Rose Park.

Ms. Smith found BLUME Haiti and El Sistema worked hand in hand. “[El Sistema] is essentially doing the same thing BLUME Haiti is doing—empowering kids and teaching them about teamwork and leadership,” she said.

Based off the Venezuelan music education program, El Sistema is located in cities all throughout the United States. “I don’t know how long this program has been going, but it’s new,” Smith tells me. “Maybe 3-5 years old.” Currently, it only offers violin instruction but will be expanding to cellos and violas next year. “They need instrument donations, and they need to expand their budget,” she said.

Wanting to raise awareness and involve the Utah Symphony even further, Smith created “Saturdays with the Symphony,” a near-monthly exchange where one musician spends two hours with young students and their parents. “It’s basically a show-and-tell that’s 20 minutes long because the kids are so little.”

The musician plays a few pieces, speaks about their instrument, and discusses their journey studying music. “Then they have a little orchestra rehearsal, and we have the symphony member sit and play the little ‘Ode to Joy’ tune they’re working on,” she said. Following the concert is a potluck dinner where students and their families meet the musician. “It’s really such a motivating thing for the kids!”

Smith has made it her mission to expand the program to its full potential by utilizing the world-class talent available in Salt Lake City. “I really just want to help increase the visibility of this organization,” she said. “I want the symphony to do everything it can to help—that’s why I started this very small gesture of having one musician a month reach out to our community.”

In her experience, local Salt Lake initiatives don’t hold nearly as well as a large-scale Haiti trip would. “It amazes me how easy it is to fundraise for Haiti than it is to fundraise for children in our own community,” she said. “Jackson Elementary is a five-minute walk from the Utah Opera Production Studios.”

Interested in getting involved? You don’t have to be a professional musician to directly impact the lives of Salt Lake City youth.

First off, this Friday, February 16th, MOTUS (musicians of the Utah Symphony) After Dark will be holding a fundraiser at the jazz club Avant Groove, starting at 9 PM. Tickets can be bought online or at the door for 5$, and all the money raised directly benefits to El Sistema. “I think we’ve almost sold out all the VIP booths,” she said.

Secondly, El Sistema is accepting donations to expand the program to its full potential. Donations can be made online here.

If donations are not possible, Salty Cricket accepts volunteers of all kinds. If interested, please reach out to Victoria at, or by calling (919) 274-3845.

“[El Sistema] is small now, but it’s growing,” Smith says. “I can tell it’s going to be a huge thing in the future that affects so many children’s lives.”

To learn more about El Sistema’s Jackson Elementary program, visit their website.


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2018-19 Season Announcement: Entertainment Series

If show tunes and spectacles are your thing, you’ll be thrilled for our new 2018-19 Entertainment Series! From West Side Story to My Fair Lady, the Utah Symphony strives to bring you some of the most incredible voices and pops music.

For being 100-years old, Leonard Bernstein sounds as great as ever! In honor of this master composer’s 100th birthday, we bring you Bernstein on Broadway. With classics like West Side Story and On the Town, you’ll be sure to be singing along.

Singer Morgan James will be joining us. You can hear her music here.

Portland’s favorite “little orchestra” is will join our big orchestra in “Joy to the World” with Pink Martini and the Utah Symphony. This holiday celebration will take you on a trip around the world with multi-cultural holiday songs. It’s a concert that’s sure to bring holiday joy and that your entire family will love!

Wouldn’t a night out with a special someone just be loverly?  Bring your Valentine to Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady with the Utah Symphony. This will be a semi-staged production with real Broadway singers in full-costume performing live to the orchestra.

“Amazing” doesn’t even cover it. Cirque Dances with Troupe Vertigo & the Utah Symphony will combine acrobatics, classical dance, and thrilling music all in explosive fashion. You’ll be telling everyone about this unbelievable performance.

Don’t miss a single, sing-able note of our 2018-19 Entertainment Series. Learn more and subscribe here.

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