Celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday with Songfest at Maverick

Portrait of Leonard Bernstein, Carnegie Hall, circa 1946. (William P. Gottlieb Collection | Library of Congress)

Since Maverick Concerts’ music director Alexander Platt is an experienced and successful conductor, his annual chamber orchestra concerts have become much-anticipated highlights of the Maverick season. This year’s event is particularly significant, as it’s a Leonard Bernstein 100th birthday anniversary concert – exactly on the date of Bernstein’s birthday.

For most of the past half-century, Bernstein has been remembered as the composer of a handful of works, especially West Side Story. Yet the Bernstein catalogue contains dozens of compositions, including more musicals, three symphonies, his dramatic Mass (not an actual mass setting) and a wide variety of vocal and chamber works. Bernstein’s Songfest, completed in 1977, was intended as a patriotic celebration of the 1976 Bicentennial, but wasn’t finished in time; it was first performed in 1977 by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington under Bernstein’s direction.


Songfest, settings of the works of 13 American poets from the Colonial-era Anne Bradstreet to contemporaries Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, has been performed only rarely in Bernstein’s original version. To make it more accessible, Platt arranged it for chamber orchestra in 2011, and premiered it at the prestigious Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 2013. For its Maverick performance, Platt has enlisted players from the Caroga Arts Ensemble, in residence at Caroga Lake in the Adirondacks; singers from the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice; and actors from the Actors & Writers ensemble to read the poems.

“Bernstein was an active protestor of the Vietnam War,” says Platt, “and he refused the National Medal of the Arts to protest the George H. W. Bush administration’s policies regarding the National Endowment for the Arts. Lenny wrote his Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems, a glorious and sprawling yet eclectic farrago of a work, in tribute to the Bicentennial. But deep down he might as well have been writing it in celebration of America’s Fourth of July as well as France’s Bastille Day. In setting 13 American poems spanning three centuries from a wide diversity of sources – racial, ethnic, sexual and political – Bernstein was forever reaching for those Gallic ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité in an all-embracing musical vision.”

Maverick Chamber Orchestra Concert, Saturday, August 25, 6 p.m., $30 (optional post-concert reception $50), Maverick Concert Hall, 120 Maverick Road, Woodstock; (845) 679-8217, www.maverickconcerts.org.