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Leonard Bernstein conducting

What was Leonard Bernstein's relationship with the LSO?

From his first concert in 1966, to becoming LSO President in 1987, Leonard Bernstein had a close relationship with the LSO that spanned 24 years.


4-minute read

In the 1960s Ernest Fleischmann, General Manager of the LSO at the time, had been trying to get in touch with Leonard Bernstein to invite him to conduct the Orchestra. Fleischmann heard that Bernstein was staying with a friend in London and managed to make contact – but Bernstein’s response was that he would never return to London to conduct, saying that London’s rehearsal spaces were too draughty! Fleischmann managed to convince him that things had changed since Bernstein’s first concerts in London in the 1940s, and promised him as many rehearsals as he wanted. And so Bernstein changed his mind, inviting Fleischmann to meet him in New York to discuss plans.

Watch: Bernstein and the LSO

First Concert

Bernstein’s first concert with the LSO was on 14 April 1966 at the Royal Festival Hall, conducting Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 7. It was his first appearance with a British orchestra since 1946.

Three days later he conducted Mahler’s Symphony No 8 at the Royal Albert Hall. Over the subsequent three days, the Orchestra recorded Mahler’s Symphony No 8 with Bernstein at Walthamstow Assembly Hall.

In total, Bernstein conducted 36 performances with the LSO between 1966 and 1990.

Bernstein conducting the LSO at the Royal Albert Hall, 1966

Bernstein conducting Mahler Symphony No 8 at the Royal Albert Hall, 1966

Recording and TV

The majority of Bernstein’s concerts with the LSO were either recorded live and released, or recorded the next day in the studio.

In total, Bernstein conducted seven dedicated recording sessions with the LSO. The sessions spanned 15 different works, including music of his own.

Bernstein made nine television appearances in total with the LSO, mostly live concerts for the BBC which were also recorded for video release. Reportedly a rehearsal of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 at BBC TV Centre in December 1966 was so engrossing that BBC Two postponed the late night news to stay with the rehearsal. (The rehearsal was being recorded live for Humphrey Burton’s new arts programme Monitor.)

The LSO Bernstein Festival

There was a major Bernstein Festival at the Barbican from 29 April to 11 May 1986. John Mauceri conducted music by Bernstein, alongside works by others which he admired, championed or was influenced by: Mahler, Stravinsky, Ives, Britten, Blitzstein, Shostakovich.

There was an extensive programme of performances on the Barbican’s foyers, cinema screenings of On the Waterfront and West Side Story, an exhibition of photos and memorabilia, and a performance of Mass by students at the Guildhall School. The festival included a Royal Gala Performance (6 May 1986) in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, conducted by Bernstein himself, featuring soloists Gidon Kremer, Krystian Zimerman and Aled Jones as the treble soloist in Chichester Psalms.

The festival aside, over the last six decades the Orchestra has performed Bernstein music under 43 (and counting) different conductors, including Aaron Copland, André Previn, Marvin Hamlisch, Henry Mancini, Harry Rabinowitz, Marin Alsop and Michael Tilson Thomas, to name a few.

The Bernstein Festival celebrates one of the great musical figures of our century. As conductor, composer, teacher and broadcaster, Leonard Bernstein has already left his unique mark on music history: the Festival brings together all these aspects of his achievement on a scale never previously attempted … The Festival can only give an indication of the vast impact which Leonard Bernstein has made on our musical life over the past 40 years.

John Mauceri, Music Director, The Bernstein Festival

LSO President

As a result of the Bernstein Festival, the Orchestra and Bernstein became much closer. He was offered and accepted the role of President of the LSO in 1987. He held this position until his death in 1990. There had previously been only four Presidents since the LSO was founded in 1904: Lord Howard de Walden, William Walton, Arthur Bliss and Karl Bohm. There has been only one since: Sir Colin Davis.

While Bernstein was President, we celebrated his 70th birthday with a concert at the Barbican (14 August 1988). John McGlinn conducted excerpts from some of Bernstein’s music: On The Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story, the Candide Overture and the Slava Overture.

On Tour with the LSO

The LSO and Bernstein together undertook seven tours: to Edinburgh, Ely, Salzburg, Rome, Paris, Berlin and Japan.

Performances of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 at Ely Cathedral in September 1973 followed just days after the Orchestra and Bernstein had performed the same programme at the Edinburgh International Festival.

The 1988 tour to Paris and East and West Berlin included much of Bernstein’s own music, including his Prelude, Fugue and Riffs with Andrew Marriner as solo clarinet.

On 25 December 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 at the Schauspielhaus in East Berlin, to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was augmented by contingents representing five orchestras from East Germany, France, the UK, US and USSR, including LSO members Paul Edmund-Davies (flute) and Roy Carter (oboe). The concert was broadcast live in more than 20 countries to an estimated audience of 100 million people. (The same concert was performed the day before in West Berlin.)

Bernstein founded the Pacific Music Festival with Michael Tilson Thomas in July 1990, in Sapporo, Japan, which has been held every year since. In his opening address of the Festival, Bernstein said that he had decided to devote what time he had left to education.

Bernstein conducted his final concert with the LSO on 22 July 1990 – Bruckner’s Symphony No 9 in Osaka, Japan. He passed away three months later.

Bernstein and Marin Alsop at the Pacific Music Festival, 1990

Bernstein and Marin Alsop at the Pacific Music Festival, 1990

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