Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, West Side Story, electrified audiences when it came to the stage in 1957. He was “the rock star of the classical music world,” says Mitch Gershenfeld, president and CEO of the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert. “I can’t think of a single musician in history that has had the impact on so many different elements of music as Leonard Bernstein.”
This spring, the theater joins the global Leonard Bernstein centennial celebration, offering three shows highlighting his work surrounding the anniversary of his birth in 1918. McCallum also marks its 30th season this year. Honoring Bernstein was an easy choice for Gershenfeld, he says. For him, it’s personal.
“Leonard Bernstein gave me my first professional job in the music business,” he shares. “I was an 18-year-old freshman in college, and Bernstein had come to Philadelphia to premiere a show. He had hired a group of musicians and one of them was not playing the part the way he wanted him to, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time. He auditioned me, and I got the job. I was very lucky — and very grateful to Leonard Bernstein for giving me my start as a musician.”
“He was the most photographed, the most televised, the most famous symphony conductor and composer in the world during his day. Very few musicians have been able to bridge that classical music and popular music divide.”Mitch Gershenfeld, CEO, McCallum Theatre
The gig, he says, was playing tuba in the orchestra for a show called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “It actually is a bit of an infamous Broadway musical, because when it went to New York, it only lasted for a week,” Gershenfeld says. “I played it for a month in previews in Philadelphia, so I probably played it more than any of the musicians who played it on Broadway.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY MCCALLUM THEATRE
Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein, starring Hershey Felder as Bernstein, takes the stage March 20 and 21.
Gershenfeld’s experience echoes Bernstein’s own entrée into the musical spotlight. In 1943, a young Bernstein — then assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic — was called in to replace an ailing Bruno Walter in leading the orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The nationally broadcast concert captivated audiences and critics, and a star was born.
“Bernstein was an interesting character in American history,” Gershenfeld says. “He was the most photographed, the most televised, the most famous symphony conductor and composer in the world during his day. Very few musicians have been able to bridge that classical music and popular music divide.”
In addition to conducting and teaching, Bernstein’s vast body of work spans musical theater, classical compositions, symphonies, and sonatas. He also scored the Oscar-winning On the Waterfront.
“His Young People’s Concerts [broadcast on CBS television from 1958 to 1972] basically helped an entire generation of children to appreciate, understand, and love classical music,” Gershenfeld says.
The McCallum tribute began with Keigwin + Company Celebrates Bernstein, Feb. 5, in which the New York dance company highlights music Bernstein composed for ballet companies, including Fancy Free. “There’s such an amazing vibrance and energy about Bernstein’s music for dance,” Gershenfeld says. “It shows you that kind of explosive joy that was part of the post–World War II American experience.”
West Side Story: In Concert, which comes to the McCallum for five performances, March 9–11, is produced and directed by McCallum staff member Chad Hilligus, who played Tony in West Side Story’s 50th anniversary international tour. Broadway veterans Matthew Hydzik and Ali Ewoldt star as Tony and Maria. “It’s the show without the sets and costumes, done in a concert format,” Gershenfeld explains. “We have a [40-piece] orchestra of Hollywood’s finest musicians on the stage, along with the singer, so you’ll get all of the music and much of the dialogue. It’s a wonderful way to see this show!”
Finally, Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein, starring Hershey Felder as Bernstein, takes the stage March 20 and 21. The musician/actor, who created the hit George Gershwin Alone and has also portrayed Irvin Berlin, narrates Bernstein’s life story in the first person and performs his music.
In addition to the Bernstein tribute, McCallum has scheduled shows almost every day of the week through April for its anniversary season. “There’s lots to see,” Gershenfeld says, “and what I think has made the McCallum so successful for 30 years is [the] variety of programs we offer to our community.”