Top Five 'Linspiring' Stories in Classical Music

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jeremy Lin (Chris Trotman/Getty)

Jeremy Lin’s rise from bench warmer to New York Knick did the unthinkable—it not only thrilled local fans, but impressed sports neophytes from around the world. While Lin’s rise in sports is relatively unprecedented, musicians have periodically stepped in to replace an ailing star, and immediately started building their own legends.

1. Leonard Bernstein

There could not have been more pressure on 25-year old Leonard Bernstein when he was called on as a last-minute replacement for conductor Bruno Walter during a 1943 nationally-broadcast concert of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. The next day Bernstein’s debut was celebrated on the front of The New York Times. “All our lives changed,” Bernard Bernstein, Leonard’s little brother remembered. “We suddenly were, literally, all famous.”

2. André Watts

Bernstein later engineered one of the great Cinderella stories on the classical stage. In 1963, the conductor had led a 16-year-old André Watts during a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert. He didn’t know that he would have to call on the teenage pianist barely two weeks later for a regular subscription program. Watts replaced Glenn Gould to play Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E-Flat with the Phil.

3. Lang Lang

Thirty-six years later after Watts's auspicious debut, he allowed another young pianist to have an equally dramatic entrance on the scene. Watts was unable to attend the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Gala of the Century due to sickness. His replacement was a 17-year-old student at Curtis, Lang Lang. The Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein reported that night, “He is a phenomenal talent. The audience jumped to its feet, roaring its approval.”

4. Licia Albanese

Licia Albanese, who was known for her portrayal of Cio-Cio San, made her opera debut in the role as an understudy in Milan, replacing an absent performer. She would later sing more than 300 performances of Madama Butterfly (72 came at the Metropolitan Opera). She also sang “Un bel di” at the gala that closed out the old Met in 1966. She donated her costumes associated to the role to the Met in 1994.

5. Esa-Pekka Salonen

When Esa-Pekka Salonen was appointed principal conductor and artistic adviser to the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2007, the ensemble called the process, “the longest courtship in music history.” Salonen’s first appearance with the group came in 1983 as an unheard of replacement for Michael Tilson Thomas, who was conducting nothing less than Mahler’s Third Symphony. Though the 25-year-old Finn barely knew the work, he became an overnight sensation in Britain and an instant celebrity in his native country.

Who do you find "Linspiring" in classical music? Tell us about your favorite Cinderella story or comeback performance below:

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Comments [3]

David Shore from Congers

I recall a performance of Carmina Burana, I think at the Albert Hall in London in the '70's, when the counter-tenor was taken ill during the performance. An amateur member of the audience who knew the music volunteered to step in, and did a terrific job. I can't remember his name but he deserved a big career after that.

Mar. 01 2012 04:10 PM
Judith from Brookline, MA

Leon Fleischer.
Actually, I had thought that Murray Perahia suffered from the same problem that Fleischer had, and I had found it remarkable that two pianists with the same affliction both overcame it to resume their careers. Apparently, I'm wrong about the underlying problem, but not about their comebacks.

Mar. 01 2012 12:39 PM
Scott from Brookline, MA

In 1990, Murray Perahia suffered a cut that became septic. After he recovered, he went on to produce multiple award-winning recordings. The condition recurred some years later, and again he was able to make a come back with new recordings! I think he is remarkable...

Mar. 01 2012 11:22 AM

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