Dayton Philharmonic celebrates
Bernstein Centennial at Schuster

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster Jessica Hung

By Pat Suarez

Leonard Bernstein had to have been thinking, “Wow…” when, in 1947, Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins approached Bernstein and writer Arthur Laurents about adapting Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for the stage. Hmmm… The most enduring play of all time in a contemporary setting in New York. The “Yes” switch clicked on immediately—there was simply no way this project would fail. And Lenny was right. “West Side Story” set Broadway and cinema records and helped cement Bernstein’s lofty musical stature, influencing future composers, conductors, and musicians
for decades.

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman was one musician whom Bernstein won over. As part of the centenary celebration of Bernstein’s birth (August 25, to be exact), Maestro Gittleman will perform two of Bernstein’s works, “A Musical Toast” and “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” at the Schuster Center on May 4 and 5.

The Dayton City Paper asked Gittleman about Bernstein:

DCP: Please tell us about the influence that Bernstein had on you and your approach to the music you conduct.

NG: I suppose I’m one of the “Lenny Babies” whose awareness of classical music was shaped by Bernstein. My mother was a high school music teacher and there was always classical music played in the house (live or recorded or the radio). But it really didn’t grab me until I started watching Bernstein’s televised young people’s concerts. His enthusiasm (and explanation of what was happening) got me hooked.

DCP: Bernstein was interested in what made American music American. What are your thoughts on this subject?

NG: It was one of his obsessions, for sure. And there is, perhaps an “American feel” to U.S. classical music…a kind of eclectic, open, willing-to-take-a-risk, genre-bending, genre-mixing approach. Honestly, I think it was more of an issue in Lenny’s youth, when American classical music was trying to find its voices. Now we’ve got tons of voices, and the question of if it exists and what it will be is less, well, questionable. The “New Americans” of our program, Stella Sung and Sean Neukom, are a perfect example. Their music is very different, but recognizably American in feel and spirit. I think Bernstein would be happy to have his music alongside theirs (especially since he gets the prime opening and closing slots!)

DCP: You’ve conducted Mahler 2 and 6, “Carmina Burana,” and other high-power works. Your performance of Bernstein’s “Mass” seemed to, in a way, pack just as much of a wallop. How did Bernstein manage that?

NG: I think lots of Bernstein’s own music was informed by the music he conducted. So if you hear the spirit of Mahler or Orff in “Mass” or other Lenny works, maybe that’s why.

The DPO program, indeed, also features the music of two outstanding American composers, Stella Sung and Sean Neukom. The DPO has performed Sung’s
compositions before.

Ms. Sung was kind enough to give the DCP her thoughts on this upcoming concert
and composing:

SS: From 2013-2016, I had the great honor and privilege of being the “Composer in Residence” with the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. As a composer who has always enjoyed working with dancers and choreographers, it was a true pleasure collaborating with Dayton Ballet Artistic Director and choreographer, Karen Russo Burke. SIGNS, composed in 2013, began from an idea that Karen had for the program, which she titled “Fate of Place.” Karen wanted to have a work that reflected the concept of the various different “signs” that one receives in life, both literally and figuratively. As we talked about the composition and dance, we decided upon a 3-movement work. The first movement reflects the journey that one begins in life; seeing the various “signs” throughout life—sometimes wondering which paths to take, which ones to leave behind—the curiosity, the anxiety, the unknown. Thus the first movement ends with a kind of unresolved question. The second movement is more reflective and gentle in nature, perhaps being at the place of the solitary decisions that one must sometimes make, and finding ways to embrace the “signs” that are there for us to see. The third movement is a “moving forward” of taking the path and following one’s ultimate decision and accepting the “signs” in life, embracing all that life has to offer; the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the highs and lows, but knowing that the “signs” of life are all
around us.

For this concert, Sean Neukom composed a violin concerto for DPO concertmaster Jessica Hung. Neukom offered his thoughts about his concerto:

SN: This work started with me and my violin at a gig for which I had arrived entirely too early. Walking around and playing with an idea, the kernel of the concerto was conceived. From there I wrote as much of the violin part as I could at my instrument. Following that, a short score was devised. After letting the work sit for a few months, I returned to start the orchestration. Composing for a soloist and many players you know is both exhilarating and terrifying. You want to challenge, acquiesce, perhaps perturb, and ultimately converse with your musical colleagues in a way that can only be done through the little dots on the page. Of course my part in this process was finished months ago. Now, like other listeners, I get to sit and listen to what good musicians do best: bring the page to life. It’s this final step that is indeed the most interesting.

Bernstein and the New Americans will be performed at the Schuster Center May 4 and 5 at 8 p.m. There will be a pre-show program “Take Note with Neal Gittleman and Sean Neukom” at 7 p.m. each night. For tickets and additional information, call 888.228.3630 or visit

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at

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