The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Happy Birthday to Lenny at 100! Here are some ways to celebrate today’s Bernstein centennial | August 25, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

One hundred years ago today, the versatile and world-celebrated American musician Leonard Bernstein (below) was born.

For most of his adult life, starting with his meteoric rise after his nationally broadcast debut with the New York Philharmonic, Lenny remained an international star that has continued to shine brightly long after his death at 72 in 1990.

When his father Sam was asked why he wouldn’t pay for young Lenny’s piano lessons and why he resisted the idea of a career in music for his son, he said simply: “I didn’t know he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein.”

Lenny! The name itself is shorthand for a phenomenon, for musical greatness as a conductor, composer (below, in 1955), pianist, educator, popularizer, advocate, humanitarian and proselytizer, and so much more.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia biography where you can check out the astonishing extent of Lenny’s career and his many firsts, from being the first major American-born and American-trained conductor — he studied at Harvard University and the Curtis Institute of Music — to his revival of Gustav Mahler:

You should also view the engaging YouTube video at the bottom.

So eager have the media been to mark the centennial of Leonard Bernstein, one might well ask: “Have you had enough Lenny yet?”

New recordings and compilations of recordings have been issued and reissued.

Numerous books have been published.

Many new photos of the dramatic, expressive and photogenic Lenny (below, by Paul de Hueck) have emerged.

TV stations have discussed him and Turner Classic Movies rebroadcast several of his “Young People’s Concerts.”

For weeks, radio stations have been drowning us with his various performances, especially his performances of his own Overture to “Candide.”

Still, today is the actual Leonard Bernstein centennial and the culmination of the build-up and hype, and if you haven’t paid attention before today, chances are you wind find Encounters with Lenny unavoidable this weekend. 

Yet if you pay attention, you are sure to learn new things about Lenny who seems an inexhaustible supply of insights and interesting information, a man of productive contradictions.

With that in mind, The Ear has just a few suggestions for this weekend, with other tributes coming during the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music and other music groups and individuals.

You can start by listening to the radio.

For most of the daytime today Wisconsin Public Radio with pay homage to Lenny. It will start at 10 a.m. with Classics by Request when listeners will ask to hear favorite pieces and offer personal thoughts and memories. After that a couple of more hours of Bernstein’s music will be broadcast on WPR.

Then on Sunday at 2 p.m., WPR host Norman Gilliland (below top) will interview Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain (below bottom, by Prasad) about working with Lenny.

Here, thanks to National Public Radio (NPR), is the best short overview that The Ear has heard so far:

Want to know more about Lenny the Man as well as Lenny the Musician?

Try this review from The New Yorker  by David Denby of daughter Jamie Bernstein’s book (below) that has juicy anecdotes and new information about growing up with her famous father.

And here, from Time magazine, is the little known story of how Lenny the Humanitarian conducted an orchestra of Holocaust survivors (below):

What is your favorite tribute to Bernstein so far? Leave a link in the COMMENT section if you can.

What is you favorite composition by Bernstein?

What is your favorite performance by Bernstein?

What would you like to say or tell others about Leonard Bernstein?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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  1. Hi, Jake! In answer to your questions:

    1 My favorite piece of his is one not very well-known — the dance piece “Facsimile”. He wrote it in 1946 in conjunction with Jerome Robbins, following his successes of “On the Town” and “Fancy Free” a couple of years earlier. It was not warmly received then, either, but I think it was Bernstein at his best, probing the delicate balance between popular and classical languages very convincingly — much like Gershwin did a decade or two earlier.

    2 I don’t have a favorite performance of his, but I commend his efforts to program contemporary American classical music in the 1950s and 60s — he certainly understood Copland in particular, but also many others.

    3 If I had to say one thing to Bernstein, it would be on the order of: “Thanks ever so much for everything you’ve done for Classical music, more than words could possibly express.” I actually did say something like that to Van Cliburn when I was given the opportunity to shake his hand, upfront and personal, at his 2007 Amateur Piano Competition. In both cases, these were individuals who were supremely gifted, in the right place at the right time in their youth, but who also dared to share their wealth and influence in inventive ways with the general public when afforded that opportunity.


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — August 26, 2018 @ 11:55 am

  2. It’s a personal thing, what music we like, but I enjoy Bernstein’s earlier work far more than his “serious” ones.

    Some examples: The Symphonic Suite for “On the Waterfront” was written in the early ’50’s. Candide was written in 1956. On the Town in 1944. West Side Story in 1957. The “Age of Anxiety” in 1949 (revised in 1965).


    Comment by fflambeau — August 25, 2018 @ 8:36 pm

  3. WPR has been doing a terrific job on this all week long.

    One piece by Bernstein that I had not realized was his is the Symphonic Suite for the movie “On the Waterfront”. For some reason, I always thought Bernard Herrmann did this but it was Bernstein. It’s an amazing piece as is the movie (“I couldda been a contender!).


    Comment by fflambeau — August 25, 2018 @ 12:09 am

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