Leonard Bernstein’s legendary love for Westminster

By Felicia Roehm

Leonard Bernstein, a famous composer best known for his compositions of the musicals “West Side Story” and “On the Town,” collaborated with Westminster Choir College for many years sharing his talents with students. 

He won 11 Emmys and one Grammy throughout his 50-year career, and he composed six musicals. Bernstein was born Aug. 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Ukrainian and Jewish parents. He began taking piano lessons as a child and attended Harvard University. 

While at Harvard, he studied with American composers Walter Piston and Edward L. Burlingame, as well as musicologist Arthur Tillman Merritt. After graduating in 1939, Bernstein made his conducting debut with “The Birds” – one of the first pieces he composed. 

In 1940, he studied with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and in 1943 became assistant director of the New York Philharmonic. From 1945 to 1947 he was the music director for the New York City Symphony Orchestra and returned to the New York Philharmonic as the music director in 1958. 

Bernstein traveled as a conductor and wrote music for many famous Broadway musicals, movies and operas. He composed the music for “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “Candide” and many more. Bernstein was also passionate about world peace which often inspired him musically. In 1980, he spoke at Johns Hopkins University and at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1983 about his dedication to world peace. In 1985, he went on his “Journey for Peace Tour” to Athens, Greece, and Hiroshima, Japan, for the 40th anniversary of the atom bomb. 

The European Community Orchestra joined him on that tour and in 1989 Bernstein conducted the “Berlin Celebration Concerts.” The concert was performed twice on each side of the Berlin Wall as it was being dismantled. Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre, were very involved in the nonprofit organization Amnesty International, an organization focused on human rights. 

Bernstein collaborated with WCC from 1956 to 1989 and the Westminster Symphonic Choir performed 14 times with Bernstein as well as made eight recordings with him. 

Ronald Hemmel ’78, a Westminster alum who teaches music theory and composition at the college, had the opportunity to work with Bernstein three times throughout his college career. Hemmel explained that working with Bernstein was a wonderful experience and Bernstein knew how to work with the choir very well. 

“He was great, he was very energetic,” said Hemmel. “He knew how to get what he wanted from the musicians and not just the choir, but the New York Philharmonic, who I can tell played better from him than several other conductors in the same time period.”

One of the projects that Hemmel worked with Bernstein on was a recording of the music “Lord Nelson Mass” by Haydn. That recording was later nominated for a Grammy. Even when Bernstein wasn’t working, Hemmel explained that he had a very big personality. “He was just this huge, huge personality,” said Hemmel.

He also explained that Bernstein worked well with Joseph Flummerfelt, the director of choral activities at that time. “[They] seemed to work very, very well together. I saw them in rehearsals, I saw them in the recordings, which is of course why he kept bringing Westminster Choir back to perform with him when he could choose any choir in the world.” 

When Bernstein passed away in 1990, his family invited the Westminster Symphonic Choir to sing at his memorial concert at Carnegie Hall. In 2018 for Bernstein’s 100th birthday, Westminster celebrated the release of a new recording by the Westminster Symphonic Choir of Bernstein’s “Mass.” The Symphonic Choir performed with The Philadelphia Orchestra and was conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The recording was done in 2015 and the performance included Westminster Symphonic Choir, Temple University Choir and the American Boy Choir.

The Philadelphia Inquirer critic Peter Dobrin reviewed the recording and wrote, “The piece was written to help celebrate the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1971. It sounds like the ’70s. Authentic listening practice would involve sitting in a dark room with incense burning and psychedelic posters aglow under black lights. It is pure America.” Bernstein’s collaboration was a wonderful opportunity for students to learn from someone extremely accomplished and successful. 

The collaboration also helped the reputation of Westminster and shows the achievement of the students and the education the students have received. Bernstein spoke very positively about WCC and said, “Westminster Choir College provides a great measure of beauty to a world that needs it badly.”

He left his mark on the world and benefited WCC by sharing his talents with dedicated students who were eager to learn about music.  

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