RALEIGH — Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland defined American classical music in the 20th century — and they also shared a decades-long friendship unlike any other in the history of classical music. Meeting for the first time in 1937, when Copland was 37 years old and Bernstein was just 19, the two composers maintained correspondence for their entire lives and saw each other nearly every summer. Copland was a mentor to Bernstein, and Bernstein championed Copland’s music.
On Thursday, Nov. 21, in Wilmington, and Friday and Saturday, Nov. 22-23, in Raleigh, the North Carolina Symphony will perform music by the two friends, along with works by their American contemporaries Samuel Barber and George Frederick McKay. Fast-rising German guest conductor Christian Reif will lead the symphony in its three performances of iconic American music.
Headlining the program is Bernstein’s popular “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” his musical telling the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers in a New York City slum in the 1950s. Bernstein arranged tunes from his beloved and Tony Award-winning musical into a lively and emotional symphonic suite.
“The score of West Side Story was among the first music I fell in love with — and I was convinced to become a professional musician,” says NCS double-bassist Bruce Ridge.
Copland is represented with his Symphony No. 2, the “Short Symphony,” which he regarded as one of his personal favorite works. He composed this symphony between 1931 and 1933, shortly before he entered into his folksy “Americana” musical style. This symphony foreshadows that style, which Copland would debut the same year with Appalachian Spring.
The Symphony No. 2 is so rhythmically challenging that conductors of both The Philadelphia Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra backed out of their first planned performances, fearing that they would not have adequate rehearsal time.
NCS Concertmaster Brian Reagin will solo in McKay’s Violin Concerto — a work he has a long history with, as he recorded it for a commercial album in 2005. McKay was a prolific composer and spent almost his entire musical career in Washington state. His goal was to incorporate the songs and dances of the West into the classical repertoire, evoking a “folk feeling.” In addition, the influence of Erich Korngold — who was composing down the coast in Hollywood — is apparent in this romantic concerto.
The program opens with Barber’s “Overture to The School for Scandal,” a reflection on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s madcap comedy. This overture helped to establish Barber as one of America’s most prominent composers — a rank he still holds today, along with the greats Bernstein and Copland.
The concert on Thursday, Nov. 21, will be at 7:30 p.m. in the Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College.
On Friday and Saturday, Nov. 22-23, the concerts will begin at 8 p.m. in Meymandi Concert Hall, Woolner Stage, in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.
Tickets start at $20.
For more information, visit www.ncsymphony.org/events/220/bernstein-copland/