In many performing art circles, the year 2018 has special meaning. This would have been the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, one of the most important and celebrated musicians in American history.
He was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Jewish villages in northwestern Ukraine in the first decade of the 20th century, a time when nearly 50,000 Jews were coming to America from Russian territory each year. They met after they arrived here and soon married. Shortly thereafter, Lenny—as the entire musical world would come to call him—was born. When he was ten, an aunt gave his family an upright piano, and from that moment he was hooked. Soon he was playing better than his first teacher, who was quick to recognize how gifted he was. He graduated Harvard in 1939 where his senior thesis was “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music,” in which he examined how contemporary composers like Gershwin and Aaron Copland incorporated other musical styles into what they wrote, thereby making a distinctively American music. The topic pointed to his future tendency to write in various forms and styles. Through his career as a composer he wrote symphonies, Broadway musicals, choral pieces, film scores, ballets, operas, chamber music, piano music and more.
As a conductor he was emotional and effusive and rather exactly what the public imagined conductors to be. From early in his conducting career, profiles written about him inevitably made much of his physical gyrations and expressiveness while leading an orchestra. Some thought him more interested in being a showman than a serious conductor. He was dramatic and entertaining to watch, no doubt. He explained, however, in a 1958 New Yorker profile that he never thought about what else he might be doing physically while he was conducting. He was fully drawn into the score and the power of it spoke through his actions on the podium. Anyone who plays music and while doing so moves without thinking will understand this instantly.
This year, orchestras all over the country are having Bernstein celebrations. The San Diego Symphony is spending the month of May performing some of his most notable works (including his Symphony #1, entitled Jeremiah, which I’m listening to as I’m writing this). This month and last, the Charlotte Symphony played concerts from his wide-ranging repertoire. In two concerts next fall, the Utah Symphony is playing a “Bernstein on Broadway,” program and his opera “Candide.”
The New York Library for the Performing Arts (at Lincoln Center) just wrapped up a months-long exhibit on the Bernstein centenary with all sorts of artifacts being on display from batons, to handwritten scores from West Side Story, to that childhood piano.
Closer to home, several performing arts organizations in Austin are teaming up at the end of June for a blockbuster two-night performance of Bernstein’s 1971 Mass that will involve the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Austin, several choirs, and numerous other groups. It’s being billed as the “largest performing arts collaboration in Austin’s history,” which is certainly saying something. Several other events across the city, including a young composers concert, are happening as well. Bravo to Austin for such an undertaking. That sort of sweeping celebratory civic gesture through music is right in line with the spirit of the man who conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in Berlin at the fall of Berlin Wall, substituting the word “Freedom” for the word “Joy” in the famous “Ode to Joy” climax of that timeless work. It represents faith that music can overcome differences of any sort and bring people together. This is exactly what every symphony in the country should be up to as they celebrate one of the most important conductors, composers, and educators in American history.
There’s a line in Hamilton when the character of Aaron Burr sings of Alexander Hamilton, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time / Write day and night like you’re running out of time,” and one gets the feeling, after toting up Bernstein’s lifetime of conducting orchestras all around the world, undertaking educational projects at every turn, and composing in every style from classical symphonies to jazz-influenced Broadway smashes, that such a question could’ve been asked of him.
That restlessness, that wanting to be all things at once, that inability to decide what you want to be when you grow up and a conviction that all things are possible, is what makes Bernstein so American.
A version of this column appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald on April 11, 2018