Updated, May 2, 2022, 11:55 a.m. This story was updated to reflect a change in ticket price.
Like a triple flat in musical terms, discovering a new work from a highly studied and publicly known 20th-century master composer is both a rare and wondrous occurrence. This past November, an unknown violin quartet composed by Leonard Bernstein in 1936, while he was a student at Harvard University, had its world premiere at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. — one of the great conductor and composer’s beloved performance venues.
For the second time only, this historic find with its interesting backstory will be performed by Musica Viva Kentlands on May 7 at the Bender Jewish Community Center Kreeger Auditorium in Rockville. The professional musicians will play under the baton of conductor and artistic director Simeone Tartaglione, a Kentlands resident and associate professor and orchestra conductor at Catholic University in the District.
Bernstein’s musical legacy is unparalleled in the 20th century, ranging from his outsized prominence as a conductor and apostle for bringing classical music to a broader audience, to his expansive catalogue of classical and musical theater compositions.
Kentlands resident Lisa Benson Pickett, a retired violin and cello teacher, tells the story of the Bernstein “Music for String Quartet.”
“My father played [violin] in the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” she said. “Back in the 1930s, he and a few of his colleagues played in a string ensemble. It was a quartet at the time, but sometimes they needed a pianist to join them to play some quintets. They heard about a young man who was excellent by the name of Leonard Bernstein — a student at nearby Harvard.”
Then an unknown, Bernstein rehearsed and played with Stanley Benson’s quartet on occasion. “Maybe just the year before, [Bernstein] had composed ‘Music for String Quartet,’” she continued. “One day he asked my dad and the other players if they would play through his string quartet at a rehearsal,” Pickett said. “They said, ‘Sure.’ When it was over, he asked my father if he’d like to keep the parts. My dad said, ‘Yes, I would love to keep the parts.’”
Benson brought home the score, which contains Bernstein’s signature on each page, and put it in the music cabinet along with scores by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, et al.
“He played it at home occasionally and my mother played it with her quartet at home. But it wasn’t ever played publicly or produced or published. Then they put it away in the music cabinet.”
A few years ago, on a drive to Tanglewood, Pickett’s mother mentioned that there was a Bernstein quartet in the music cabinet. “I was stunned!” Pickett exclaimed. “I said, ‘Are you telling me you have a handwritten copy of a string quartet that Leonard Bernstein wrote?’ She said, ‘Oh yes, but it’s just a little piece. He was just a student then. It’s nothing. I almost forgot about it.’”
That proved to be a great surprise, both to Lisa Pickett and to Bernstein scholars and archivists she approached about the work. They told her the composer never wrote a quartet.
Ultimately, the work was verified and the Benson family sold the manuscript to an anonymous buyer. “We were told at the time that that we wouldn’t ever be able to play it in public because my mother was selling it,” although Pickett has a copy for personal use. Ultimately, the Bernstein estate, including the composer’s three children, got involved because they own rights to all their father’s intellectual property, which covers his musical output. The result: the purchasers own the manuscript while the Bernstein estate controls rights to the piece as a musical performance.
At the Tanglewood world premiere last fall, the composer’s daughter Jamie Bernstein was delighted, reported Pickett. The daughter told her, “This is so much fun … to hear something that my father composed that I’ve never heard before.”
The quartet is about 10 minutes long and, according to Pickett, even at this early stage in Bernstein’s artistic career, it does contain some Bernstein-isms.
“Just one year later, he composed his Piano Trio for piano, violin and cello, which will also be played in this concert,” she said. “It sounds very much like his String Quartet actually, but I suppose [the quartet] was something he was just trying his hand at for composition class.”
Founded in 2018 with support from the Kentlands Community Foundation, Musica Viva Kentlands brings free classical music experiences to the planned community in Gaithersburg. It’s a way to make classical music more accessible and less intimidating for audiences, noted Ron Thelin, chair of the small orchestra’s organizing committee.
“We use only the best available professional musicians,” Thelin added. “And we very deliberately structure [performances] in a way to make sure that the concerts are kept in a relaxed, very informal outdoor setting. People with families are encouraged to come and are encouraged to picnic and enjoy themselves.”
The concert at the Bender JCC anticipates the forthcoming outdoor summer season, he added. The program, billed as a Leonard Bernstein Celebration, also features Mozart’s “Quartet in G minor for Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano,” k.478, and Schumann’s “Quintet in E flat for Two Violins, Viola, Cello and Piano,” Op.44. Bernstein recorded the Mozart and Schumann pieces with the Juilliard Quartet in the 1960s.
“The success of this event will help shape what we are able to do in the summer,” Thelin said. As for whether the summer season will include Bernstein’s newly discovered quartet, that’s still to be determined. “It would certainly be something that we would consider doing, making the work available to a larger audience for free if the Bernstein company allows it. Right now, they have given permission for this performance only.”
Leonard Bernstein Celebration with Musica Viva Kentlands featuring a newly discovered quartet by Bernstein, May 7, 7:00 p.m. Kreeger Auditorium, Bender JCC, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville. Tickets $60. For reservations: https://allevents.in/mobile/amp-event.php?event_id=10000316731210577.