The most versatile musician in American history would have been 100 this year, had a heart attack not killed him in 1990.
Leonard Bernstein did everything well but sing, though he did sing (sometimes publicly) in a baritone that sounded like a bullfrog goosed by a cattle prod. He was a conductor, pianist, writer, educator and the only classical musician nominated for an Oscar, a Tony (he won two) and a Grammy (he won nine).
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will devote a concert to him March 23-24, playing his Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), Symphonic Suite from “On the Waterfront” and Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.”
On April 14, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will pay tribute with the final concert in Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Charlotte Jazz Festival. “Leonard Bernstein at 100” will offer music from “Candide” and “West Side Story,” plus surprises.
If you love classical music or musical theater, you’ve heard his recordings. He made well over 200 as music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1957 to 1969 and with other major orchestras over the next 21 years. Maybe you own cast albums of “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “Candide” or “West Side Story.”
But if you’re not yet familiar with Lenny – the name used by every admirer or detractor while he lived – here are 10 things you need to know.
1. He was the first American-born conductor with a long tenure at one of the Big Five, as the top orchestras were known in the 1950s. He replaced Greece’s Dmitri Mitropoulos at the NY Phil. At that time, other heavyweight maestros were Europeans: France’s Charles Munch (Boston) and Hungary’s Eugene Ormandy (Philadelphia), Fritz Reiner (Chicago) and George Szell (Cleveland). Bernstein finally got American orchestras past that prejudice.
2. He was a Bostonian. He was born in nearby Lawrence, Mass., graduated from Harvard and apprenticed under Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky at the Tanglewood summer festival. In the 1940s, Bernstein conducted the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes” there and the world premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-Symphonie” with the Boston Symphony. The guy we think of as a quintessential New York hipster … wasn’t.
3. He was a Jew. So were Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg and other classical composers writing from the 1930s through the 1950s. But none incorporated their theology into their music like Bernstein. “Jeremiah” uses Hebrew texts from the Book of Lamentations, sung by a mezzo-soprano. Both his life-affirming “Chichester Psalms” and his angry, despairing Third Symphony (“Kaddish”) quote biblical texts.
4. He could rock a keyboard. Almost every maestro plays an instrument reasonably well; Szell and Georg Solti (Chicago Symphony) made multiple recordings as pianists. But Bernstein, who never gave a solo recital, had the widest range of all. He often played Mozart, conducting from the piano stool, and he made memorable recordings of concertos by Beethoven, Gershwin, Ravel, Schumann and Shostakovich.
5. He liked rock ‘n’ roll. When classical contemporaries sniffed at The Beatles, he extolled them. He had always incorporated elements of jazz and the blues into his music, but he added rock (electric guitars, full drum kit and the rest) to “Mass,” the evening-long “sacred theater” piece that opened the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1971. Nay-sayers dubbed it “Mess,” and it is – but a fascinating one.
6. He revived Gustav Mahler’s reputation. Before Bernstein, American music directors generally condemned the Austrian master’s long, complex symphonies as too hard for audiences to sit through (or, perhaps, for orchestras to play well). Europeans didn’t embrace him all that much, either. Bernstein championed Mahler through performances, television talks and the first U.S. recording of his complete symphonies in the 1960s. Now Mahler’s everywhere.
7. He was a TV star in the first decade of that medium. His six lectures on the live show “Omnibus” explained everything from Bach to Broadway from 1954 through 1958. His informal, breezy style made him a charismatic host, and he took the job seriously. When he was done, you knew what a “minor third” sounded like and why Broadway shows owed a debt to Viennese music of the 19thcentury.
8. He revolutionized Broadway, with help from choreographer-director Jerome Robbins and lyricists such as Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Parker and Richard Wilbur. Broadway musicals had ballet interludes before the 1944 “On the Town,” but much of that show (which grew out of the Bernstein-Robbins ballet “Fancy Free”) relied on intricate footwork. Along with Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella,” Bernstein’s “Candide” proved in 1956 that a musical with almost no dialogue could work. Without that pair, would we have “Phantom” or “Les Miserables”?
9. He loved new and seldom-heard music. He gave Charles Ives’ Second Symphony its world premiere with the NY Phil in 1951, half a century after Ives had written it. He championed Americans Roy Harris and William Schuman, Denmark’s Carl Nielsen and especially Dmitri Shostakovich. Bernstein had the guts to play Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, when he took the NY Phil on tour in 1959. (Audiences roared approval.)
10. He fought for people’s rights. In 1963, he gave African-American pianist Andre Watts a subscription concert with the NY Phil, and Watts became an international star. Bernstein helped cellist Mstislav Rostropovich emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1974 and established the Felicia Montealegre Bernstein Fund of Amnesty International USA (honoring his late wife) to support human rights activists. In 1989, the ailing Bernstein flew to Berlin to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin Wall with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – where he changed the final “Ode to Joy” to an “Ode to Freedom.” All of Lenny’s life, one way or another, was about freedom.
‘Bernstein at 100’