Leonard Bernstein received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of DKK 50,000 at a concert held on Monday, 17 May 1965 in Odd-Fellow Palæet.
The music prize was presented by the composer Knudåge Riisager.
Carl Nielsen: Helios overture, Violin concerto
Soloist: Tibor Varga
The Royal Danish Orchestra
Conductor: Johan Hye-Knudsen
Carl Nielsen: Symphony no. 3, Espansiva
Soloists: Ruth Guldbæk and Niels Møller, song
The Royal Danish Orchestra
Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
The written motivation does not exist, but you can listen to Knudåge Risager's speech at the prize-giving ceremony here:
The prize concert version of Carl Nielsen’s ‘Espansiva’ with Leonard Bernstein conducting The Royal Danish Orchestra was issued as an LP by CBS in summer 1965.
Bernstein came to Copenhagen a week before the concert – he was to rehearse the Carl Nielsen symphony with The Royal Danish Orchestra – and during the rehearsals Bernstein gave an interview to Berlingske Tidende, in which he said about Carl Nielsen that "Carl Nielsen was absolutely mad – because his music is prophetic and has a neurotic enthusiasm – although of a different kind from Mahler’s. I really feel there are traces of neurotic elements in Nielsen’s music. He was born the same year as Sibelius, but his genius was overshadowed by Sibelius. The orchestral tradition is perhaps more academic, which makes Carl Nielsen difficult to conduct – it is almost the same problem as with Schumann. But it can be done without altering a single note in the score, simply by balancing the dynamics. The most interesting thing, however, is to study the music’s prophetic qualities. And it is simply fantastic to see that Shostakovich’s latest works could have been composed by Carl Nielsen."
A few days before the prize concert, Bernstein also found time to travel to Odense to see Kai Wilton’s production of West Side Story at Odense Theatre – featuring a number of young actors including Ole Ernst, Lone Helmer, Brigitte Kolerus, Klaus Pagh and Lars Knutzon. "I have seen it hundreds of times," Bernstein said to B.T. "but this is the first time I have seen my performance as a ‘close-up’ – don’t get me wrong: I always get to see large-scale performances with lots of dancers and huge sets. This time I got close to the performers – and it completely entranced me," Leonard Bernstein said. And B.T. continues: "with tears of joy streaming down his cheeks, he greeted all those taking part in the Odense Theatre production of the musical."
During all the rehearsals, Danmarks Radio’s TV made recordings that resulted in a long TV documentary from the rehearsals, along with an interview with Bernstein. And the actual prize concert was fortunately also recorded – and later broadcast in its entirety!
Prior to the music, the composer Knudåge Riisager handed over the music prize of DKK 50,000. He said:
"Dear Mr. Bernstein. When the board of the Léonie Sonning Music Prize decided to award you the prize, and you kindly accepted the invitation to come to Copenhagen to receive it this evening, we gained the opportunity to pay homage to a great musician, one who for many years has enjoyed a worldwide reputation as a composer, conductor and pianist. When your gramophone recording of Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony became known here in Denmark several years ago, the thought began to germinate in Danish music circles even then as to how we – in a suitable way – could express our recognition of the important contribution you thereby had made to spreading knowledge of our great composer outside the borders of our own country.
For the centenary of Carl Nielsen’s birth, when the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation was also established, we felt it was a natural opportunity to invite you to conduct The Royal Danish Orchestra in one of Nielsen’s symphonic works. And at the same time to express our gratitude to you by awarding you this prize. I therefore ask you to accept this prize in the spirit in which it is conceived: as the most respectful tribute by Danish musical life to you as an artist and musician, and in gratitude for your fine efforts to promote Carl Nielsen’s music."
wrote, among other things:
"[...] With true Carl Nielsen animation, Bernstein managed to get the very being of the symphony to become ‘expansive’ as never before. Like a bomb laden with musical energy, though with complete control over every single note, he led the orchestra through the movement, danced its motifs, forced out its will to live, embraced the broad, lyrical beauty with a ritardando that completed the triumph of the theme and held its final note in a rising fortissimo. Carl Nielsen would [...] after the first movement, and if he had heard it, lean back even more pale in his seat, spellbound by the greatness of his own music."
(Kai Flor, Berlingske Tidende, 18 May 1965)
"I ask you to accept this prize in the spirit in which it is conceived: as the most respectful homage by Danish musical life to you as an artist and musician, and in gratitude for your fine efforts to promote Carl Nielsen’s music.’ With these words, Knudåge Riisager handed over [...] the music prize [...] There was thunderous applause when the orchestra, with Bernstein as conductor, had played Carl Nielsen’s Third Symphony, ‘Espansiva’. There were countless calls, led by the king and Princess Benedikte, and flowers, whistling, stamping of feet and cries of ‘Bravo!’ were showered on the conductor for the entrancing experience he, along with the orchestra, had given his audience."
(Vejle Amts Folkeblad, 18 May 1965)
"[...] one was taken [via the later TV transmission] from one’s place in the concert hall up to the orchestra, and like the musicians one sat face to face with Bernstein, followed every sign from his hands, every expression in his face, where the tension never relaxed for a second, but at times gave way to a smile at the gentleness of the music, a smile that spread out to the musicians, while his gaze continued to glow with intelligence. His ardour sometimes seemed to assume the nature of a grimace, and his movements could turn into the spellbinding gestures, leaps and oscillating movements of a sorcerer [...]"
(Kai Flor, Berlingske Tidende, 30 May 1965)