Ravinia Celebrates Leonard Bernstein with New Immersive Theater Show

August 7, 2021, 5:06 PM · Ravinia Festival is celebrating the musical and humanitarian legacy of Leonard Bernstein with a new permanent installation, "Bernstein's Answer."

Developed by Los Angeles-based BRC Imagination Arts, "Bernstein's Answer" is an immersive 10-minute video production that plays in the new Music Box facility at Ravinia.

Ravinia Music Box
Ravinia's Music Box. Photo by Maya Guice.

Don't expect some boring documentary here. Hosted by Bobby McFerrin, "Bernstein's Answer" challenges viewers' assumptions about the role of music in our lives through breathtaking visual effects and a stirring performance by the Chicago Children's Choir.

Bobby McFerrin in ‘Bernstein's Answer'
Photos courtesy BRC Imagination Arts and Ravinia Festival

The show is the brainchild of former Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman, who was inspired by the theatrical work that BRC did on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum downstate in Springfield.

"Could they do that for Brahms or for Bach or for Beethoven? Or ultimately for who I would love to have seen this be all about - Leonard Bernstein?," Kauffman asked. He had been looking to create a new experience for Ravinia that would help the venue feel more welcoming to a wider variety of visitors. And he thought that Leonard Bernstein would be the ideal focal point for the attraction.

Leonard Bernstein Ravinia
Photo by Maya Guice.

"My father was all about communicating and making a connection with his audiences," Bernstein's daughter Jamie said before the show's press preview yesterday. "Everything he did was really a form of teaching, a form of communicating something that he was excited about."

"Also my father was so in love with every kind of music that there is in the world. As long as it was great, he was in, whether it was Balinese Gamelan or R&B - anything that he ran across, he was all in. That's very contemporary too, because now today's composers feel completely free to write in any style they want or any bunch of styles - they can thread it together any way they want, and everybody honors and celebrates that.

"That was not the case at all when my father was composing," Jamie Bernstein said. "In the middle 20th century, if you want him to be considered an important and meaningful serious composer, you absolutely, positively had to write 12-tone music. That was what got the stamp of approval from academia. That meant no tunes and no keys, and it was all very cerebral and very intellectual. There's nothing you could really hum on the way home. My father was perfectly capable of writing that kind of music and he often did, but it was just one of the colors on his compositional palette."

Moments later, when a cloudburst poured over Ravinia, Kauffman joked, "These are the 12-tone composers, literally raining on Bernstein's parade."

He shook his fist at the sky. "Damn you, Eliott Carter!"

Yet "Bernstein's Answer" shuns no form of music. Under the creative direction of Brad Shelton and Edward Hodge, the production employs holographic effects and animation with archive photos to create a fast-paced visual journey that challenges the viewer to consider, "What does music mean?"

Profound questions often elicit glib answers, but "Bernstein's Answer" refuses to settle for that. The show references darker moments during the 20th century as a denouement to its inspiring finale, which features The Chicago Children's Choir singing "Somewhere" from "West Side Story."

 Bernstein's Answer

"All through my father's life, he was using his own compositions to confront these big questions he had about the world - spiritual questions," Jamie Bernstein said. "You can track it through his music, that there's this kind of fist shaking at the heavens, like if you're up there and taking care of us, why is everything such a mess down here? Why are we all so terrible to each other?"

"My father's music always contains the questions about our existence, and why do we have so much darkness, and how do we rise above it?," she said. "I think it's great that Brad and his team found a way to really make that an organic part of their presentation, because it's how my dad was.

"His own music was, in a way, the answer to his own question. If we can create beauty that we all relate to, that everybody can respond to, and that lifts us up to that higher level of connection and discourse, then there is hope that we will all get to a better place."

And yet music - like any art - never achieves its full potential if you leave it to speak for itself. Art needs advocates, educators, and yes, even critics - people who can reach those not yet engaged by particular worthy works of art. "Bernstein's Answer" uses a creative form more typically associated with theme park attractions to introduce Ravinia visitors to the wider variety of music beyond the genre they came to the venue to hear.

Celebrating all genres of music in ‘Bernstein's Answer'

"My favorite phrase when you're approaching anything that you're thinking of as educational is, ‘your need to tell does not equate my need to hear,'" Shelton told me.

"What [Leonard Bernstein] did so well, and what I hope this show does, is that the way it approaches education is not that I'm going to knock you over the head with knowledge, but I'm going to make you feel something. Because if I can make you feel something, you're going to walk out of here and realize it is something that you care about and want to know more about.

"But if all I've done in there is try to fill you with facts, then you're going to walk out saying, ‘that was kind of interesting' and not really care. That's what Bernstein did so brilliantly. It's why he was so effective at it, and I'm hoping that in a small way we've been able to do that."

You can hear more about the making of "Bernstein's Answer" in my video interviews with Hodge, Shelton and Jamie Bernstein. The video also includes exclusive images from the show itself.

"Bernstein's Answer" is free with admission to any Ravinia Festival concert, playing up to 30 minutes before the concert's start. For a schedule of upcoming concerts, visit Ravinia.org.

You can read my original post about "Bernstein's Answer" on my website, Theme Park Insider.

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