100 Years of Music Giant Leonard Bernstein

Culture Watch
tags: Leonard Bernstein



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

     These days at New York’s Lincoln Center, conductor Leonard Bernstein, the composer of West Side Story, is everywhere. The street outside the center is named after him. There are mammoth billboards with his face outside David Geffen Hall. Inside the hall, there is a huge television screen carrying a slide show of his life. His photos appear in all the programs and brochures. The center is jammed with his fans, many arriving from far away on charter buses. Everybody is talking about him. Why? This year is what would have been the flamboyant conductor’s 100th birthday and the New York Philharmonic, housed at Lincoln Center, is celebrating the event – big.

    The Philharmonic, that Bernstein led as a conductor for many years, last week launched a joyous celebration of the popular Maestro’s work that will run for months. It includes four of his world renown concerts, a special Young People’s Concert, two library exhibits, a new CD collection with 100 of his works on them, educational conferences, a Bernstein-Mahler marathon, and, to top it all off, a spectacular Bernstein on Broadway New Year’s Eve concert at Lincoln Center.

    Why did the orchestra decide to do so much of the conductor’s work in this tribute, that extends through the end of February, 2018? “So much?” laughed Barbara Haws, the Philharmonic’s historian and head archivist. “I think we haven’t done enough.”

   Over the last half century, Massachusetts born Bernstein, hailed as a musical genius as a very young man, became the face of the Philharmonic.   Archivist Haws shakes her head in wonder when she reminisces about Bernstein’s meteoric career. He first went to work for the orchestra in 1943, in the middle of World War II, and stayed with it through 1990. “It is not just that he was with the Philharmonic for so long,” said Haws. “It’s that all of the musicians who played for him, and even long after him, always considered this Lenny’s orchestra.”

   Why no West Side Story, his most famous work, in the tribute?

   “It’s been staged so often, and all over the world, that we did not see a reason to do it yet again,” she said.

   There’s another reason. “Many people have not heard his four concerts, such as Jeremiah and Serenade and so we wanted to give that music more of a showcase,” she said.

      The centennial came about when Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s former music director, had dinner with the conductor’s children three years ago. “He pretty much went along with their wishes about the tribute,” said Haws.

   How did Bernstein become so famous? There was West Side Story, of course, a few other musicals, and then his numerous appearances as head of the Orchestra in the Young People’s concert series on television from 1958 to 1972. There was his flamboyance. Who would ever forget him in front of the orchestra with that gorgeous mop of hair of his and the big smile waving the baton with so much graceful energy? His travels with the orchestra, that carried him all over the world, even to Russia in the Cold War?  His memorial concerts following the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy? His involvement in numerous social causes? That telegenic face?

   “Yes, but I think that Bernstein just had a very people oriented personality,” said Haws. “He never met a person he did not hug. He’d take a long time to walk home because he would constantly stop and talk to people. And he was friendly, a really friendly man. You’ll meet somebody and say you work for the Philharmonic and they’ll all have a Bernstein story. People loved him.”

     One of them was Leonard Slatkin, a Bernstein protégé. When they met, “he looked me in the eyes and exclaimed ‘My God,” and proceeded to give me a gigantic hug,” wrote Slatkin.

      Before each concert, Bernstein used to hug each musician. Haws said that she thinks Bernstein gave about 500,000 hugs to the musicians over the years.

   The celebration started last week.  A perfect example of the big centennial show was the staging of two Bernstein symphonies and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue last Friday, that I attended. The Hall was jammed with people and they sensed that as the music soared their beloved Lenny Bernstein was still with them.

    Rhapsody was a Bernstein favorite. He was the pianist in it on 37 different occasions and reminded everybody that when the orchestra first staged in in 1927 Gershwin himself was the soloist.

    Alan Gilbert sees Bernstein as a titanic figure in the history of music. “It is impossible to overstate the important role that Leonard Bernstein played in American cultural life and at the New York Philharmonic,” he said. “He was and remains a large than life cultural personality and his love for music and the people was boundless.”

    “People do not realize how much work he put in and what a scholar he was,” archivist Haws added. “He had 3,300 scores in his personal library. All in all, he conducted e Philharmonic more than 1,200 times.” She stopped and then went on, “1,200 times…”

     Bernstein’s story had a movie style beginning that captivated audiences worldwide. He was the hard-working assistant conductor for the Philharmonic in 1943 and all of a sudden the conductor, Bruno Walter, became so ill that he could not conduct the orchestra one night. Bernstein was asked to step in, with just three hours’ notice, and do the job. Worry about it? He just smiled and then strode out in front of the orchestra and a huge crowd full of confidence. He did a sensational job, bringing the house down. The newspapers raved about his work and his story, and he was instantly famous.

    There have been numerous books about him, magazine articles and television documentaries. There was an Off Broadway play last year, Maestro, that concentrated on his early years and how people recognized that he was a genius right away. He remains one of the most celebrated musical leaders in world history.

     All of this is being celebrated in the centennial. It kicked off Oct. 25 (through Oct. 31) with performances of Bernstein’s Serenade and Jeremiah and Joey Roukens’ tribute to the conductor, Boundless. The centennial moved on with Rhapsody in Blue, along with Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and The Age of Anxiety, Nov. 2-4. Next will be Bernstein’s Kaddish, with actor Jeremy Irons as the speaker, and Strauss’ Don Quixote on Nov. 9, 11 and 14. Following that will be a recreation of Bernstein’s fabled Young People’s Concerts. This one, on Nov. 11, will feature Slatkin as the conductor. It will be an all-Bernstein program with selections from his plays Candide and On the Town. The Philharmonic will present Bernstein concerts at the University of Michigan Nov. 16-19. On Feb 22-28, the orchestra will present a program of Bernstein’s dances from West Side Story.   The New York Public Library will stage a traveling exhibit, Leonard Bernstein at 100, that will tour the nation.

    After all these years and all this music, how can America thank Lenny Bernstein?

   Give him a big hug.



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