Seventeen dancers from Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts will be part of the celebration honoring Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday year at E.J. Thomas Hall Thursday.
Their teacher, Ashley Watts, created the dance with them as part of a special project with pianist Lara Downes, who will perform her "For Lenny" concert for Tuesday Musical's Fuze series. The concert, which stems from Downes' 2018 Sony Classical release of the same name, includes Bernstein's own works, new arrangements of his songs and pieces dedicated to Bernstein by leading American composers.
One of the latter is "The Answer Is: Yes" by Gregg Kallor, Tuesday Musical's composer in residence who will also be in Akron for the concert Thursday. Kallor premiered the jazz-infused work in October at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Bernstein is buried.
On Wednesday, Downes rehearsed "The Answer Is: Yes," a nod to Bernstein's ideas about the future of music as well as the affirming way he lived, with the dancers in their school auditorium. Before playing live, she sat at the piano to watch them run the dance to a recording by Kallor.
"I have a question. How do you keep your glasses on when you're dancing?" Downes asked, grinning at the students.
"They're magical," piped up seventh-grader Lacey Rule, who wears glasses.
"They're magical," Downes repeated. "You're all magical."
Bernstein (1918-1990), one of the most talented and successful musicians in American history, created classical and theatrical works including the remarkably eclectic score for "West Side Story," and was a longtime music director for the New York Philharmonic.
Wednesday morning at Lippman School in Akron, Downes spoke to middle school students about Bernstein, his legacy and social justice. They talked about the song "Somewhere" from "West Side Story," and each discussed his or her "Somewhere" place and what they could do to change the world.
"One kid said, 'I wish racism wasn't a thing,' " Downes said.
The "For Lenny" concert will end with movements from "West Side Story." But the first half of the program focuses on Bernstein's "Anniversaries for Piano," which he wrote over a period of 40 years as gifts for the people closest to him.
Through these intimate compositions, many of which he wrote in the 1960s, listeners get to hear his quiet side, Downes said.
"I think we tend to think of Bernstein as 'West Side Story' and the big, sort of celebratory pieces," she said. "I just love these pieces. They give me a chance to express something totally different."
There are "Anniversaries" honoring Nina, Bernstein's daughter; Felicia, his wife; Aaron Copland, Bernstein's teacher and close friend; and Stephen Sondheim, his collaborator for "West Side Story."
Downes has a close tie to Akron, where her mother, Ruth Downes, was a Jewish civil rights lawyer. The pianist, who is of Jamaican and Russian heritage, was raised in San Francisco and Europe. She met Bernstein once at Tanglewood near Boston when she was very young, and again as a teen backstage in Vienna, when he was dripping with sweat after a concert.
He talked with her and her musician sisters about "staying connected to the fun of music, which is certainly what I try to do every day."
Bernstein went out of his way to support women and musicians of color, Downes said, so the second half of "For Lenny" features music by female composers, including Billie Holiday. It segues back into the work of Bernstein with "Big Stuff," which he wrote for Holiday.
Downes said she wouldn't be where she is today if Bernstein hadn't broken all the rules, working in many different styles to blend sounds that had never been heard together before. That stylistic freedom is clear in "West Side Story," in which the composer blended jazz, Latin and symphonic music.
Eclecticism was on the menu at Miller South, too. For "The Answer Is: Yes," students created their dance by choosing movements from work they've done over the school year, with Watts incorporating them into a new dance vocabulary.
The song's title captures Bernstein's spirit, the way he saw the future of the world and his place in it, said Downes.
Kallor chose the title from a quote by Bernstein in a 1973 Harvard lecture, using Charles Ives' metaphysical composition "Unanswered Question" as a jumping-off point to explore everything from linguistics and philosophy to the future of music.
Bernstein's final message was this: “I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know the answer, and the answer is: Yes.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.