LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
A native of Lawrence, Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein graduated from Harvard University in 1939 and shortly thereafter undertaking piano, orchestration, and composition studies at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. He advanced rapidly in his conducting skills while working with the Boston Symphony Orchestra's music director, Serge Koussevitzky, at the Tanglewood music festival.
As a composer, the young Bernstein became the toast of New York after two great successes of 1944, each memorably depicting the city itself: first the ballet Fancy Free, in which three sailors have 24 hours to spend in New York; then On the Town, which expanded that dramatic idea into a Broadway musical. Bernstein was to return to Broadway for Peter Pan (1950) – not the Mary Martin musical but a play starring Jean Arthur, for which he wrote four songs; Wonderful Town (1953), a triumphant vehicle for Rosalind Russell; Candide (1956); West Side Story (1957); and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976). Bernstein achieved great success with a one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti (1951), for which he wrote the libretto himself. He returned to that work's leading male character (aging him several decades and giving him an adult son and daughter) for a full-length opera, A Quiet Place (1983).
The rest of Bernstein's output was enormously varied over the years: three extraordinary symphonies, billed as Jeremiah (1943), The Age of Anxiety (1949), and Kaddish (1963); many songs, including two comic cycles for mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel (I Hate Music and La bonne cuisine), a mezzo/baritone cycle entitled Arias and Barcarolles (1988), and Songfest, a celebration of American poetry for six singers and orchestra (1978); Mass, "a theater piece for singers, players, and dancers," which opened Washington's Kennedy Center in 1971; Chichester Psalms (1965), one of the most popular of all 20th-century choral pieces; and works in many other genres, including ballets, chamber music, and pieces for solo piano.
As a conductor, Bernstein's career in the "big time" was launched sensationally with his last-minute substitution for Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic (1943), of which he was assistant conductor at the time. Having already guest-conducted widely, he became the Philharmonic's music director in 1958, leading a highly eclectic repertoire over the next eleven years and documenting much of it on recordings. His unique gift for musical and verbal communication extended to the televised Young People's Concerts, which produced innumerable converts to classical music nationwide. Upon concluding his tenure with the Philharmonic and becoming its first "laureate conductor," Bernstein continued to lead performances, maintaining his longstanding relationships with the Boston Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Israel Philharmonic. His opera-house conducting over the decades included La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Vienna Staatsoper. He also performed a number of operas and extended operatic excerpts in concert.
Bernstein contributed immeasurably to ensuring a healthy future for classical music by passing on his knowledge to younger artists. He taught for years at Tanglewood, and there and elsewhere he served as a teacher and mentor to two generations of composers and performing artists.
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