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Previously unheard Bernstein composition will have world premiere at Tanglewood in November

A white grey-haired man holds up a piece of paper in front of a wall with a painting of a violinist and built-in bookshelves filled with books
Josh Landes
John Perkel, holding up the yet-unperformed Bernstein string quartet.

A concert at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts next month will serve as the world premiere for an obscure composition from a titan of classical music.

Leonard Bernstein’s compositions include pieces for orchestras, ballet, opera, vocalists, pianos, chamber groups, musicals, and even films. Shortly, a new chapter will be added to that prolific and influential body of work through a remarkable chain of events culminating in an unexpected world premiere taking place in Berkshire County.

“Leonard Bernstein wrote a string quartet in 1936," said John Perkel. "The official title is ‘Music For A String Quartet.’ This was written when Bernstein was at Harvard, 1936. He was 18 years old. He had a good friend named Stanley Benson, who eventually became a violinist in the Boston Symphony. And Stanley has a daughter named Lisa, who is my good friend, who told me this amazing story.”

Perkel is the former librarian for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the organizer of a series of Berkshire Chamber Players performances at the Stockbridge Library.

“So after he wrote the piece, he called upon his friend Stanley Benson to gather Stanley's own group to just read it so Bernstein could hear what it sounded like," continued Perkel. "So Stanley got the New England String Quartet, as they were called, to read it for Bernstein, and Bernstein asked how they liked it. And they all said they liked it very much. So Bernstein actually handed the parts to Stanley Benson. And Stanley never performed it, for whatever reason. We don't know why, his daughter didn't know why. He basically just kept it in his drawer for over 50 years. Then he died in the 1990s. His wife, Clara, whom I knew also, decided that she wanted to sell the parts to make some money. Fortunately, Lisa had the wherewithal to make a photocopy of the four parts, and so even after the sale, [the composition] maybe someday could be performed. She told me this story, which I found unbelievable, because I never knew that Bernstein had written a string quartet. Nobody knew!”

The enormity of the discovery was not lost on Perkel, who’s taken on the task of making sure the piece is finally performed in public.

“As one of Bernstein's children said to me when I invited her to come – I invited all three Bernstein children, they are the honorary co-chairs – as Jamie Bernstein said to me, ‘Gee John, it’s not every day you get to hear a premiere by Leonard Bernstein,’" Perkel told WAMC. "This is his daughter, and she didn't even know about the piece. It's incredible to me this whole story.”

Bernstein, who summered in the Berkshires to teach and conduct at Tanglewood for much of his life before his death in 1990, is both a personal hero to Perkel and an outsized presence in the world of classical music.

“He is arguably, and in my opinion, definitely, the most famous classical musician of the century," said the former librarian. "The only possible rival could be Igor Stravinsky, but Bernstein not only was a conductor and a pianist, but a composer and a lecturer and a teacher, and the most inspirational person I ever met in my life. And so to discover something written by him, even though he was only 18, to me was miraculous and completely unexpected.”

The previously unperformed piece by the precocious Bernstein has been verified as his work by the company that manages his oeuvre. It offers both insight and enigma for scholars and fans of the composer.

“We learned that he was very young and impressionable," said Perkel. "And like most young composers, you can't help but be influenced by other composers, especially at the time Shostakovich. And we don't even know why he wrote this. It's a mystery, which makes it that much more intriguing to me. It might have been a composition assignment by the famous composer Walter Piston, Bernstein's composition teacher. We don't know. What's also intriguing about this to me is that on the first page of each part is a Roman numeral ‘one,’ which may suggest that there were other movements. This is a one movement piece. Either he never completed the other movements, or he did and they got lost. Sadly, we'll never know. Makes it more mysterious to me.”

Originally, Perkel wanted to debut the piece in April 2020 – a dream dashed like so many others by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, on November 6th, Bernstein’s ‘Music For A String Quartet’ will finally have its world premiere at the Linde Center on the Tanglewood campus.

“So we have an amazing array of five musicians: Two current Boston Symphony members, one former Boston Symphony member, and two former Tanglewood Music Center fellows," said Perkel. "I thought that was really important, because Bernstein himself was in the very first class of fellows in 1940. Every one of the five musicians either has a Boston Symphony connection, a Tanglewood Music Center connection, or both.”

Along with the string quartet, Perkel has programmed a concert that will include other Bernstein rarities – specifically, his ‘Piano Trio’ – as well as pieces by friend and colleague Aaron Copland, Mozart, and Robert Schumann. A Bernstein aficionado, the former BSO librarian says he doesn’t want to risk affecting audience interpretation of the piece before the concert.

“You know, I've never actually heard it. I have the music, and I can hear it to an extent. But I want to let the listener decide for themselves what it means. And if that's a cop out answer, so be it, but that's how I feel,” laughed Perkel.

Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Music For A String Quartet’ has its world premiere at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts on November 6th at 7:30 p.m.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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