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Forte: Leonard Bernstein has a special place among musical heroes

YAKIMA, Wash. -- The year 1954 was a banner year for 35-year-old American composer Leonard Bernstein. Following some success on Broadway with “On the Town” in the mid-1940s, he completed his first score written specifically for a film, Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” which was nominated for an Oscar and completed his dual conquest of the classical and popular music worlds.

Bernstein also debuted that year as the world’s most famous music educator on television, with an appearance on the CBS program “Omnibus” that brought a compelling account of the inner workings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into households across America.

That year also marked the completion and premiere of the composer’s Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”), a concerto written for violinist Isaac Stern, which will be performed this weekend by the Yakima Symphony Orchestra with YSO Concertmaster Denise Dillenbeck as soloist.

A work from the “concert” side of Bernstein’s oeuvre, the concerto takes as a point of departure Plato’s dialogue about the nature and purpose of love. Just as in the original dialogue, the soloist and musicians of the orchestra develop, extend and expand ideas in conversation with one another, using that series of speeches by the great Athenian thinkers, from Aristophanes to Socrates, as a structural framework for alternately lyrical, earnest and dazzling musical interplay.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, and so this weekend’s performance is something of a birthday tribute to a real hero of American music. Much of how we present orchestral music today has been influenced by the eclecticism of Bernstein’s interests and talents — that orchestras perform rock, hip-hop and electronica alongside the classics of prior centuries would have been unthinkable much less than 100 years ago.

As a conductor, Bernstein was an early pioneer of using themes to tie together programming over the course of an entire season, and here we are in the midst of a season-long celebration of “Heroes!”

But for American musicians, perhaps no mark has been as influential as his emphasis on music education — Bernstein followed his initial “Omnibus” appearance with several more, eventually teaching a generation of budding musicians and audiences about the power and value of music through his televised “Young People’s Concerts.”

Saturday’s program concludes with one of the great symphonies in the repertoire, the First Symphony by Johannes Brahms. The very composition of the work was an act of heroism, taking the composer more than two decades to complete and firmly re-establishing a link to the symphonic tradition of Beethoven at a time when Romantic tone poems and Wagnerian musical spectacle had overtaken popular tastes.

• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at

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