Behind the Scenes: Celebrating Bernstein Program Notes + Guest Artist Bio

The 2017/18 Season closes with three modern masterworks in Celebrating Bernstein! Presented as a testament to his brilliant career, LexPhil celebrates Leonard Bernstein’s centennial through the music of his inspiration, Gustav Mahler, American contemporary John Corigliano, and his own work. Celebrating Bernstein is an extraordinary concert finale that you won’t want to miss. 

By: Daniel Chetel

When the great romantic symphonist Gustav Mahler said to his younger colleague, Jean Sibelius, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything,” perhaps he was building the first link of the spiritual connection between himself and the groundbreaking, dynamic American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein was a polyglot artistic genius: interested in everything, rich with enthusiasm, a vivid communicator, and a sometimes surly collaborator. His musical life intersected with the theatre, American identity, his Jewish heritage, the politics of McCarthyism, and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. As a musician, Bernstein sought to contain everything, and it is no wonder that Mahler’s expansive symphonic vision was such a profound part of his everdeveloping
musical imagination.

Tonight’s program begins with American composer John Corigliano’s “To Music,” which sets the stage of universality that Mahler and Bernstein represent. The composer describes his music as “introspective” and is conceived as a musical deconstruction of Franz Schubert’s song An die Musik which is the source of the musical fragments of the fanfares played from both on- and offstage. Corigliano now serves as a professor of composition at The Julliard School and is an elder statesman of American music, but as a promising music student in New York, he worked on the staff of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic (in which his father served as the concertmaster).

Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers was a uniquely multi-faceted work of music, drama, and theatre which was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy and premiered in 1971 as part of the opening of the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capitol. Bernstein creatively reimagined both the textual and musical conventions of the traditional Catholic mass to include a wide range of performers and blend of the classical and popular realms. The three Meditations for cello and orchestra are extracted instrumental interludes from the theatrical work which offer opportunities for prayer and introspection.

Tonight’s program concludes with a work central to Bernstein’s life as a conductor: Gustav Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, an expression of Mahler’s all-encompassing vision for music both in terms of scope and in its place in the legacy and tradition of western music making. Bernstein was a champion of Mahler’s works, working to bring these vast musical poems into the modern symphonic canon, and intertwining his musical voice and vision with Mahler’s in the process. From the very first musical gesture of the symphony Mahler makes this relationship to the past clear: as in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 from nearly 100 years earlier, Mahler begins his Symphony No. 5 with a three-note pickup leading to the downbeat, creating a fournote musical motive which will permeate the entire work. Amidst the stirring string melodies, forceful orchestral outbursts, and intimate solos in the winds, Mahler returns, almost obsessively, to this opening motive. In the opening movement alone it is presented proudly in the trumpet, softly in the timpani, aggressively by the full orchestra, and as rhythmic background in the strings.

Mahler divides the five movements of the symphony into three untitled sections: the first consisting of the Trauermarsch (Funeral March) and Stürmisch bewegt, mit grösster Vehemenz (moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence), the second the expanded Scherzo, and the third the sublime Adagietto and triumphant Rondo-Finale. After the dramatic Funeral March, the second movement begins, as we have been promised by the tempo indication, with a storm. Mahler creates this effect not only with the growling triple-forte entrances from the low strings and bassoons and aggressive rips in the violins and trumpets, but also with the rhythmic layering of the entire orchestra to create a sense of instability.

At the conclusion of this movement, Mahler includes the direction folgt lange Pause (a long pause follows) in the full score, hinting at a level of stagecraft that went beyond what most composers of the time included in their concert works. The third movement Scherzo, usually a minor inner movement in a traditional classical symphony, has here been expanded into a fully formed symphonic essay and the entirety of Mahler’s second major section. It evokes both the openness of the countryside and the biting articulations of overlapping city conversations.The Adagietto, labeled as the fourth movement, also serves as the beginning of Mahler’s third and final section. After using the breadth of his orchestral forces in the Scherzo, here Mahler writes tenderly for strings and harp only and, once again, the opening thematic material begins with a three-note pickup gesture.

After the dark unsettled energy of the opening section, rhythmic intricacies of the Scherzo, and serenity of the Adagietto, the exuberance of the Rondo-Finale is palpable. The use of rising motives and excited short articulations build towards ultimate victory. In his exuberance Mahler revisits musical ideas from earlier in the symphony but now integrates them into the triumphant Finale, careening towards the work’s glorious D-major conclusion.

Joseph Johnson has been heard throughout the world as a soloist, chamber musician and educator. His festival appearances include performances in all classical genres at the American festivals of Santa Fe, Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, Bard, Cactus Pear, Grand Teton, and Music in the Vineyards as well as the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, and the Virtuosi Festival in Brazil. 

Highlights of Joseph Johnson's 2017/2018 fall/winter season include concerto performances of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations with the Toronto Symphony.  Other concerto appearances include the Dvorak Concerto at the Lakes Area Festival, the Elgar Concerto with the Etobicoke Philharmonic, and Bernstein’s Three Meditations with the Lexington Philharmonic. Recital appearances this year include performances at the Faculty of Music Walter hall series at the University of Toronto, the Chatter series in Albuquerque, Placitas Artist Series, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Toronto Summer Music Program, Mountain View Music in Calgary, Noon Concert series at the Canadian Opera Company, the Chamber Players series in Toronto, Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, Maui Chamber Music, hurricane relief concerts for St. Thomas and St. John in the USVI, and the Prince Edward County Chamber Music Festival.

Principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since the 2009/2010 season, Mr. Johnson previously held the same position with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He also serves as principal cellist of the Santa Fe Opera, and during the 2008-2009 season, was acting principal cellist of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. Prior to his Milwaukee appointment, Joseph Johnson was a member of The Minnesota Orchestra cello section for eleven years, during which time he performed numerous chamber music works during the orchestra's Sommerfest, both as cellist and pianist. He was a founding member of both the Prospect Park Players and the Minneapolis Quartet, the latter of which was honoured with The McKnight Foundation Award in 2005.

A gifted and inspiring teacher, Mr. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Cello at the University of Toronto, as well as the cello coach for the Toronto Youth Symphony. He has conducted numerous master classes for a wide range of institutions and ensembles, including The New World Symphony, The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, Eastman School of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Northwestern University, and the youth orchestras of the Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Toronto symphonies, as well as at The Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Joseph Johnson earned his master's degree from Northwestern University. Awards and honours include a performer's certificate from the Eastman School of Music and first prize from the American String Teachers Association National Solo Competition. Mr. Johnson performs on a magnificent Paolo Castello cello crafted in Genoa in 1780. He uses Jarger Superior brand strings exclusively.