Blog post courtesy of Michael Hope, CPO Assistant Principal Bassoon

Leonard Bernstein is revered as being one of the most successful and talented artists in North American history. Most musicians consider him to be something of a deity. On our concert, Classic America: Rhapsody in Blue (February 27 and 28) we’ll be performing Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, a beautiful, transporting and joyful piece that I really like.

I got to know this piece back in 1984 when I attended the 60th Anniversary celebration of my alma mater, The Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia. Also in attendance was another alumnus of my school, Leonard Bernstein. Maestro Bernstein’s association with Curtis is notable because back in 1940 he actually got kicked out of Curtis after only one year. According to Wikipedia: he did not enjoy the “formal training environment of Curtis” (I can tell you personally that I also found to Curtis to be a pretty strict place to go to school, and apparently, it still is!).

However, despite this, Maestro Bernstein let bygones be bygones, and agreed to conduct a program of his works with the Curtis Student Orchestra and a Chorus made up of Curtis Alums at the anniversary celebration. And lucky for me, I got to sing in that chorus! The piece we sang: The Chichester Psalms.

Singing for Bernstein was an euphoric experience. I noticed that, at age 66, he was somewhat fragile, and clearly suffering from the emphysema he had battled since his 50s.  However, despite this, his conducting style was to dance on the podium and exude nothing but complete joy and abandon. I couldn’t help but be amazed and carried away by this (even more amazed than I was already to be in the actual presence of the rockstar composer/conductor who wrote West Side Story!).

After the performance I dared myself to go to his dressing room to say hello. As I did, I still had the words I had just sung from the Chichester Psalms ringing through my head:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands…

Behold how good and how pleasant it is,

For brethren to dwell together in unity….

And as I shook his hand, I knew then and there that it was the closest I would ever come  to touching the hand of a god…