Composer, conductor, educator, pianist, cultural ambassador—Leonard Bernstein filled all these roles and more with aplomb. Igor Stravinsky admiringly termed him “a department store of music.”
The global celebration titled “Leonard Bernstein at 100” officially began on August 25, 2017 and continues for exactly one full year; Symphony Tacoma’s season opening concert on Saturday, October 21 featuring Bernstein’s music is among the earliest events worldwide—and first in the South Sound.
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein grew up during a time when Western music was exploding with different sounds and styles. Still recovering from the 1913 premiere of Rite of Spring, the classical world was set reeling again just six years later when—in a seeming complete about-face—Stravinsky launched into his sparse, crisp Neoclassical period with L’Histoire du Soldat. Meanwhile, Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School was busy advancing its new Twelve-Tone system, a controversial method that did away with all vestiges of tonality. Bartok was incorporating percussiveness, rhythmic irregularity, and Eastern European folk music into his compositions. Varese was introducing a highly experimental musical aesthetic he termed “organized sound.” Electronic music was heard for the first time with the introduction of the theremin. Escaping from its Ragtime cradle, Jazz was radiating from the hottest clubs of New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago, influencing composers from Copland to Milhaud, Ravel to Shostakovich. Radio and vinyl records made listening in the privacy of your home, whenever you liked, widespread for the first time.
It must have been a heady mix for a budding young musician!
Bernstein received his first permanent conducting job in 1943, serving as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, 1943, he was called upon to substitute (on a scant several hours’ notice, with no rehearsal, and after a night out partying) for an ailing Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall. Broadcast nationally on radio, the concert caused an instant sensation and made Bernstein a celebrity almost overnight.
As Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, he led more concerts with the orchestra than any previous conductor. His famed Young People’s Concerts were broadcast on national television for fourteen seasons, well beyond his tenure as Music Director. For an entire generation, Bernstein came to exemplify and symbolize a new, distinctly American classical maestro: young, handsome, charismatic, approachable, debonair, passionate, and compassionate. (Though he had his critics: Oscar Levant famously quipped “he uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting.”)
His fame as conductor tended to overshadow that of composer, but in works spanning chamber music, symphonies, opera, film and Broadway, Bernstein revealed himself as a gifted composer who gathered, absorbed and synthesized the sounds of his age—from Neoclassicalism to jazz—and made them his own. According to conductor John Mauceri, he projected a message “of understanding and hope employing both complex and simple forms and styles—yet always sounding like ‘Bernstein.’”