Lisa Benson Pickett was driving her mother, Clara, to Tanglewood about 12 years ago when her mom mentioned that she had a string quartet written by an 18-year-old Leonard Bernstein that had never been publicly performed. Pickett tried not to drive off the road.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she recalled recently, speaking by phone. “My mother just said it casually. She didn’t realize the significance of this little musical gem.”
While they were visiting the Berkshires, Pickett saw her friend John Perkel, former librarian for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She told him the story.
“I was shell-shocked, but in a good way,” said Perkel. “I didn’t know what to do about it, but I started thinking it would be great if the piece could have its world premiere at Tanglewood.”
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting venue. Although Bernstein’s career took him all over the world, the Massachusetts-born and -bred musician returned to Tanglewood almost every summer to conduct and teach. So, for Perkel, the phone calls began, and after years of authenticating, negotiating, scheduling, and most of all, waiting, his persistence was rewarded. Leonard Bernstein’s “Music for String Quartet” will have its world premiere on Nov. 6 at the Linde Center at Tanglewood in a benefit performance for the Stockbridge Library, Museum & Archives.
The concert is the last chapter of a story that Perkel describes as “spellbinding.” It began in 1936, when Lenny Bernstein, a student at Harvard University, wrote his first and only string quartet. Already recognized as a precocious talent, Bernstein assembled four accomplished musicians to play the piece, and after the performance, he gave the score to violinist Stanley Benson, Lisa’s father and Clara’s husband.
The piece was played at least once in the Bensons’ home in Newton, and it was probably a concert-quality performance; Stanley Benson became a violinist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mostly, however, “Music for String Quartet” resided comfortably and quietly in the Bensons’ music cabinet, alongside works by Haydn, Beethoven, and Bach, until Pickett’s mother broke the news on that road trip to Tanglewood.
Perkel knew the fate of “Music for String Quartet” rested in the hands of Amberson Productions, the company that holds the rights to all of Bernstein’s music. When Perkel told them the story, their response was swift: “Lenny never wrote a string quartet.” Perkel had heard that before — he said the same thing to Pickett when she first told him the story. But the evidence that this was an authentic Bernstein composition was compelling — the composer had signed each of the four parts, almost as if Lenny Bernstein knew that one day he’d become Leonard Bernstein.
“I knew it was his signature,” said Perkel. “I recognized it.”
Perkel sent samples of the work to Amberson, and the authentication process was as quick as verifying his signature and the penmanship of the notes. It took longer to get the green light for a performance, but six months after his initial inquiry, Perkel was granted permission to include “Music for String Quartet” in a concert to benefit the Stockbridge Library.
The piece will get the first-class treatment it deserves. Not only will it take place in the lovely new Linde Center at Tanglewood, it will be played by a quartet of musicians loaded with BSO and Tanglewood cred: violinists Lucia Lin and Natalie Rose Kress, violist Daniel Kim, and cellist Ronald Feldman.
The piece is only nine minutes long, so Perkel rounded out the program with other works that are tied thematically to Bernstein: Bernstein’s 1937 “Piano Trio,” Aaron Copland’s “Elegies,” Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478, and Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat, op. 44.
It’s easy to imagine the hush of the audience when the first notes of “Music for String Quartet” rise in the Linde Center. History will hang in the air. Finding a quartet that was written by a teenage Leonard Bernstein is like discovering an unpublished short story by a teenage J.D. Salinger. It helps complete the portrait of the artist as a young man.
The concert “will be a one-of-a-kind moment,” said Charlie Harmon, Bernstein’s assistant for four years and a guest speaker at the concert. “I’m sure we’ll all be very reverent.”
So how good is “Music for String Quartet”?
Harmon puts it in the category of juvenilia, but that’s not a criticism. “All composers had juvenilia,” he said, “even Mozart.”
Classical music fans may enjoy listening for the first whispers of genius from a maestro-in-the-making, but Perkel believes the significance of the night will go beyond the accomplishments of a single piece.
“It almost doesn’t matter how good it is,” said Perkel, who hasn’t yet heard the piece. “It was written by perhaps the most important musician of the 20th century. That makes it historic.”
WORLD PREMIERE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S ‘MUSIC FOR STRING QUARTET’ — LIVE!
Part of a benefit concert on Saturday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at Tanglewood. Tickets for the concert and dessert reception: $125. Visit bso.org, or call 888-266-1200.