Leonard Bernstein’s fifty year association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood began in the summer of 1940, when he became a member of Serge Koussevitzky’s first conducting class at the new Berkshire Music Center, in part thanks to a written recommendation from Aaron Copland. In a letter to Koussevitzky—who became a mentor and great friend of Bernstein’s over the next ten years—Bernstein described that summer as “the happiest and most productive of my life.” He would go on to become Koussevitzky’s assistant at Tanglewood beginning in 1942, and would return virtually every summer of his life thereafter to work with both the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Music Center orchestras. Bernstein’s time as a student at Tanglewood played an integral role preparing him for his first big break in 1943, when, at age 25, he stepped in for Bruno Walter in a nationally broadcast concert with the New York Philharmonic. He made his BSO debut the following winter in February 1944, leading his own Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, and Copland’s El México. Following many decades of major accomplishments and an undeniable impact in the music world, in 1988, Leonard Bernstein turned 70 and Tanglewood threw a four-hour concert/birthday party, Bernstein at 70!, that was aired on PBS’s Great Performances, was hosted by Beverly Sills, and featured a star-studded line-up. Bernstein made his final Tanglewood appearances just two years later, on August 29, 1990, leading the BSO in a dramatic performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as well as the “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes for what would become his final appearance before his death on October 14, 1990.
At Tanglewood and with the BSO, Bernstein lead some of the most important performances in 20th century musical history, including the first American performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (commissioned by Koussevitzky), and the world premiere performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony (commissioned by the BSO). In 1951, after Koussevitzky’s death, Bernstein headed up the orchestral and conducting programs at Tanglewood, where he remained active as a conductor and teacher for the next 40 years; he wore a pair of Koussevitzky's cufflinks at every concert he conducted, and ritually kissed them before entering the stage for each performance. Bernstein composed two works for the Boston Symphony Orchestra: his Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, commissioned for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary and given its American premiere by the BSO in 1964; and his Divertimento, a BSO centennial commissioned that was premiered in September 1980. The BSO also gave the world premiere performance of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, Age of Anxiety (dedicated to Koussevitzky), with the composer as piano soloist; the first concert performance of his suite from his only film score, On the Waterfront; and the American premieres of his Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) and Halil. For a more in depth history of Leonard Bernstein's relationship with the BSO and Tanglewood, click here.