Bernstein Today

Across the Atlantic Sea: Manchester Youth Perform Bernstein

Manchester, England (England)
Across the Atlantic sea…

No, I am not a big fan of the musical Hair, but when you’re in Manchester, that song tends to pop into your head. Luckily, in my case, it was quickly replaced by far more beautiful melodies and engaging rhythms.

It had been ten years since I’d been to Chetham’s School of Music, a first-rate boarding music school on the grounds of a medieval castle. As in the first visit, I narrated the Bernstein Beat family concert. But this time around, the orchestra was not formed of Chets students but of a specially assembled group of young people from the greater Manchester area.

This kind of community outreach is something Chets does regularly and it reflects the extraordinary inclusiveness of an institution that could just as easily look inwards at its elite self.

[Stephen (“Mr. T”) Threlfall] reminded me so much of my father as he molded their performances, always leading with love – never fear.

I arrived on a Wednesday and caught the first rehearsal, which was, not surprisingly, pretty rough. After all, these teens had never even met one another before, much less played complicated music together. The Bernstein Beat concert celebrates the joys of tricky rhythms and features some of Bernstein’s thorniest pieces, such as the “Profanation” from Jeremiah and “Cool” from West Side Story.

Even if you know these pieces, playing them is another matter entirely!

Enter our hero: Maestro Stephen Threlfall. “Mr. T”, as his students affectionately call him, has served as Chetham’s Music Director for twenty-four years. His powers of communication are exceptional. Over the course of the next few days, he patiently brought the band along until by Saturday, they were playing like total pros. Steve reminded me so much of my father as he molded their performances, always leading with love – never fear.

We did two Bernstein Beat shows that day, after which we headed to the airport to board a little thirty-seat propeller plane bound for the Channel Islands. Chetham’s has a longstanding relationship with the Jersey Academy of Music and quite often brings its students down there for joint concerts. In this case, two of Chets’ gifted pianists, both fourteen years old, played some of Bernstein’s Anniversaries along with a selection of young pianists from Jersey.

For that concert on Sunday afternoon, I provided some narrative around the various dedicatees of the Anniversaries — such as Lukas Foss, Serge Koussevitsy, Helen Coates, and even yours truly. In a stroke of artfulness that would have greatly pleased my father, the Jersey students had painted images inspired by their assigned pieces. They were projected above as they played.

Back on the thirty-seater the next day, we returned to Manchester to perform the Anniversaries again, this time with Chetham’s students only. Again, I was astonished to see the maturity and grace these young people brought to bear on these brief but often complex pieces. Backstage, the kids were unmistakably teens full of nervous energy. But onstage, professionalism took over.

There are thirty Anniversaries in all, so with one piece per student it proved to be a fairly long evening. Which is why we had time for only a brief hug afterwards. It was already past their bedtime.

About this author

Nina Bernstein Simmons is Leonard Bernstein’s youngest daughter. After working as an actress, initially at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, she turned her attention to tending her late father’s legacy. In the earliest days of the internet, she worked with the Library of Congress to make the Bernstein Archives digitally available to the public. From 2000 to 2005, Nina worked on “Leonard Bernstein: A Total Embrace,” a film about her sister, Jamie, and her remarkable journeys around the world bringing Bernstein’s music and teaching legacy to new audiences. Since 2008, Nina has been working as a food educator in underserved communities.

About this content

Jamie, Alexander, and Nina are taking you around the globe, celebrating their father’s legacy with you and adoring fans at thousands of Bernstein Centennial events. Read more travel blogging in Bernstein Today.

Support provided by:

Newsletter Signup

Get, the premiere classical music digital entertainment experience, in your inbox. Subscribe today!