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Marking the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth – an in-depth look at an American genius

Marking the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth – an in-depth look at an American genius featured image

The over-the-top conducting style of Leonard Bernstein

Today we mark the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. He was a complex man, a force of nature, a creative typhoon, and alternately encouraging or cantankerous in rehearsal. For this composer birthday profile, we’ll look at several aspects of Bernstein that defined his contribution to classical music.

The conductor
When Bernstein was in the early stages of his career, he was an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and assumed the role of Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, the first American-born and trained conductor to do so. He held the title until 1968, was then named Laureate Conductor for Life, and continue an association with the Phil. Characteristics of his style were very physical, and emotional, and full of life on the podium, as evidenced in many of the archival photos. It was not only for show; the rehearsals revealed this, too.

“Lenny uses the music to accompany his conducting,” quipped Oscar Levant – a tidbit offered to me from our in-house conductor, Kerry Stratton, and host of “The Oasis”. Kerry also shared a lovely childhood memory about the venerable maestro:
“As a boy I was astounded at the power of the concerts from New York. Nothing like that had ever appeared in my life before. They were televised and I was often on my grandfather’s farm where there was no cable TV. We did have a pretty good antenna on the roof of the farmhouse and if it was aimed directly and properly in the right direction, we could get the signals from across the lake from northern New York TV affiliates. I remember fondly my grandfather asking if I wanted to “watch those concerts” and should he go outside and adjust the wire pulleys on the TV antenna so as to draw in the signal. That’s how I first encountered Leonard Bernstein. He was magic to me. It is a very distinct part of my boyhood. It mattered, old style TV and all.”

The educator
Bernstein developed his own philosophy, “Artful Learning”, in which the arts can strengthen learning and be incorporated in all academic subjects. He was also as enthusiastic to learn as he was to teach, and pushed himself to understand why music has such a profound effect on people. He taught at the Tanglewood Music Festival, and he presented segments for the Omnibus television series (a show focussing on the arts, sciences, and humanities, hosted by Alistair Cooke of Masterpiece Theatre fame). Bernstein became a household name in the US thanks to his 53 televised Young People’s Concerts. He convinced CBS to broadcast his series with the New York Philharmonic, and these broadcasts lasted an impressive 12 years, concluding in 1970. He also had a residency at Harvard with a group of lectures, “The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard”. In these now-legendary series (which are available as recordings) he discussed the universality of music, comparing it to linguistic, acoustics, music history, and philosophy. The concept of his Artful Learning methodology was born.

Have a look at broadcast from the first year of the Young People’s Concerts. It’s as though he gives children permission to simply enjoy the music, and not worry about anything else.
“What Does Music Mean?”

That time he made a disclaimer
Here’s the most famous Canadian connection to Leonard Bernstein. This disclaimer went down in history because Leonard Bernstein was so taken aback by Glenn Gould’s unorthodox interpretation of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, he actually came out to address the audience about the difference in opinion between the two. He even posed The Big Question: “Who is the boss? The soloist or the conductor?” Bottom line, Bernstein was an amazing sport to be open-minded enough – and aware of Gould’s genius – to go for it, and to follow Gould’s lead on this one. This link includes the disclaimer and actual performance.

Ever wonder what he was like in rehearsal? He was both funny and intimidating in this clip from rehearsal of West Side Story:

Leonard Berstein’s Mambo – with Sistema and “the Dude”
Surprisingly, I had trouble finding video footage of Bernstein conducting the Mambo from West Side Story – if you find it, please contact me! In recent times, conductor Gustavo Dudamel became synonymous with the Mambo, as performed by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. This is a high-voltage performance, in which the crowd goes nuts, the musicians dance and twirl their instruments, and all hell breaks loose, but in the good way. I think Bernstein would have loved it.

The Commemorative Boxed Set
This is a collector’s dream come true – the ultimate boxed set released by Deutsche Grammophon. All his recordings are included of the classical greats – Wagner, Beethoven, Stravinksy, etc. – as well his own compositions featuring the music for ballet, opera and musicals, incidental music, film scores, orchestra, and chamber ensembles, vocal scores, and piano music. On the Leonard Bernstein website, it is available for purchase here or CLICK HERE FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOXED SET from The New Classical FM.

For further information, click here.

Leonard Bernstein was born August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and died October 14, 1990, in New York City.

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