Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony begin their season-long birthday celebration of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein with a concert that includes the ever-popular Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, his choral work Chichester Psalms, the jazzy Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, and his last work, a song cycle called Arias and Barcarolles – for which mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard will be one of the two soloists.

There’s more about the concerts, and pre-concert conversations between MTT and Bernstein scholar Humphrey Burton at the San Francisco Symphony website.

Michael Tilson Thomas, who knew Bernstein well, played the piano four-hands accompaniment with the composer in its original premiere performance. “For me the piece has always been much like what it was to go over to his place to just have drinks and sit around, and talk about whatever came to mind. All but one of the songs have texts written by Leonard Bernstein himself. And the emotional range of the texts and the music that he uses is very wide. Some of it’s quite sentimental, some of it sounds kind of  like circus music, some of it sounds like something from an after-hours club. That’s very much the kind of portrait of where his mind and his spirit in those last years was going, to some very zany, and some very scary places.” Isabel Leonard, who is immersing herself in Bernstein this fall, (and will be giving a recital of his songs on October 1st to open San Francisco Performances‘ season) says although it’s beautiful, it’s more angular than, say, West Side Story, while sharing some of its DNA. “If your only experience with Bernstein has been his musical theater pieces, this would definitely seem quite different, and a little more modern perhaps. You’ll hear these sort of moments, if you’re very well versed in things like Candide and West Side Story, you’re going to hear all these colors where your brain will say ‘Oh! I know that! I’ve heard that before!’