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Bernstein, Leonard(actually, Louis)

phil music conductor orch

Bernstein, Leonard(actually, Louis), prodigiously gifted American conductor, composer, pianist, and teacher; b. Lawrence, Mass., Aug. 25, 1918; d. N.Y., Oct. 14, 1990. He was born into a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants. When he was 16, he legally changed his given name to Leonard to avoid confusion with another Louis in the family. He was 10 when he began piano lessons with Frieda Karp. At age 13, he began piano training with Susan Williams at the New England Cons, of Music in Boston. When he was 14, he commenced piano studies with Heinrich Gebhard and his assistant, Helen Coates. In 1935 he entered Harvard Univ., where he took courses with Edward Burlingame Hill (orchestration), A. Tillman Merritt (harmony and counterpoint), and Piston (counterpoint and fugue). He graduated cum laude in 1939. On April 21, 1939, he made his first appearance as a conductor when he led the premiere of his incidental music to Aristophanes’ The Birds at Harvard Univ. He then enrolled at the Curtis Inst. of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with Reiner (conducting), Vengerova (piano), Thompson (orchestration), and Renée Longy (score reading), receiving his diploma in 1941. During the summers of 1940 and 1941, he was a pupil in conducting of Koussevitzky at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, returning in the summer of 1942 as Koussevitzky’s assistant. In 1942^43 he worked for the N.Y. publishing firm of Harms, Inc., using the pseudonym Lenny Amber (Amber being the Eng. tr. of the German Bernstein).

In Aug. 1943 Artur Rodzinski, then music director of the N.Y. Phil., appointed Bernstein as his asst. conductor. On Nov. 14, 1943, Bernstein substituted at short notice for ailing guest conductor Bruno Walter in a N.Y. Phil, concert which was broadcast to the nation by radio. He acquitted himself magnificently and was duly hailed by the press as a musician of enormous potential. Thus the most brilliant conducting career in the history of American music was launched, and Bernstein was engaged to appear as a guest conductor with several major U.S. orchs. On Jan. 28, 1944, he conducted the premiere of his First Sym., Jeremiah , with the Pittsburgh Sym. Orch. The score was well received and won the N.Y. Music Critics’ Circle Award for 1944. That same year he brought out his ballet Fancy Free , followed by the musical On the Town , which scored popular and critical accolades. In 1945 he became music director of the N.Y. City Sym. Orch., a post he held until 1948. On May 15, 1946, he made his European debut as a guest conductor of the Czech Phil, in Prague. In 1947 he appeared as a guest conductor of the Palestine Sym. Orch. in Tel Aviv. During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, he conducted a series of concerts with it as the renamed Israel Phil. He then completed his Second Sym. for Piano and Orch., The Age of Anxiety , a score which reflected the troubled times. It was given its first performance by Koussevitzky and the Boston Sym. Orch. on April 8, 1949, with the composer at the piano. In 1951 Bernstein composed his first opera, Trouble in Tahiti . During the Israel Phil/s first tour of the U.S. in 1951, he shared the conducting duties with Koussevitzky. Upon the latter’s death that year, he was named his mentor’s successor as head of the orch. and conducting depts. at the Berkshire Music Center, where he was active until 1953 and again in 1955. He also taught intermittently at Brandéis Univ. from 1951 to 1954. In 1953 he produced his successful Broadway musical Wonderful Town .

Bernstein was the first American conductor ever to appear as a guest conductor at Milan’s La Scala when he led Cherubini’s Medea in Dec. 1953. In 1954 he wrote the score for the Academy Award winning film On the Waterfront . That same year he made an indelible impact as an expositor/performer on the Omnibus television program. Returning to the theater, he composed his comic operetta Candide , after Voltaire, in 1956. Bernstein was appointed co-conductor (with Mitropoulos) of the N.Y. Phil, in 1956, and in 1958 he became its music director, the first American-born and trained conductor to attain that prestigious position. In 1957 he brought out his musical West Side Story , a significant social drama abounding in memorable tunes, which proved enduringly popular; in its film incarnation (1961), it won no less than 11 Academy Awards, including best film of the year. In the meantime, Bernstein consolidated his protean activities as music director of the N.Y. Phil, through his concerts at home and abroad, as well as his numerous recordings, radio broadcasts, and television programs. Indeed, he acquired a celebrity status rarely achieved by a classical musician. His televised N.Y. Phil. Young People’s Concerts (1958–72) were extremely successful with viewers of all ages. In 1959 he took the N.Y. Phil, on a triumphant tour of 17 European and Near East nations, including the Soviet Union. On Jan. 19, 1961, he conducted the premiere of his Fanfare at the Inaugural Gala for President John F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C. Bernstein led the gala opening concert of the N.Y. Phil, in its new home at Phil. Hall at N.Y/s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 23, 1962. He then took the orch. on a transcontinental tour of the U.S. in 1963. On Dec. 10, 1963, he conducted the first performance of his Third Sym., Kaddish , with the Israel Phil, in Tel Aviv. The score reflects Bernstein’s Jewish heritage, but is also noteworthy for its admixture of both 12-tone and tonal writing. On March 6, 1964, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. conducting Falstaff , which work he also chose for his Vienna State Opera debut on March 14, 1966. In 1967 he appeared for the first time as a guest conductor of the Vienna Phil. In subsequent years he became closely associated with it, appearing not only in Vienna but also on extensive tours, recordings, and films.

In 1969 Bernstein retired as music director of the N.Y. Phil., and was accorded the title of laureate conductor. Thereafter he made regular appearances with it in this honored capacity. From 1970 to 1974 he served as advisor at Tangle wood. For the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., he composed his theater piece, Mass (Sept. 8, 1971), a challenging and controversial liturgical score. During the 1973-74 academic year, he was the Charles Eliot Norton prof. of Poetry at Harvard Univ., where he gave a series of lectures later publ. as The Unanswered Question (1976). He returned to the genre of the musical in 1976 with his 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue , but the work was notsuccessful. On Jan. 19, 1977, he conducted at the Inaugural Concert for President Jimmy Carter in Washington, D.C. In 1983 Bernstein completed work on his opera A Quiet Place , which he considered his most important creative achievement. However, its premiere in Houston on June 17, 1983, was not a success. He then revised the work and incorporated it into his earlier opera Trouble in Tahiti . The revised version was premiered at Milan’s La Scala on June 19, 1984, the first opera by an American composer ever accorded such a distinction. All the same, the opera remained problematic. In July-August 1985 he toured as conductor with the European Community Youth Orch. in a “Journey for Peace” program to Athens, Hiroshima, Budapest, and Vienna. Bernstein also conducted celebratory performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Sym. to mark the opening of the Berlin Wall, first at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in West Berlin (Dec. 23, 1989), and then at the Schauspielhaus Theater in East Berlin (telecast to the world, Dec. 25, 1989).

Increasingly plagued by ill health, Bernstein was compelled to announce his retirement from the podium on Oct. 9, 1990. His death just 5 days later (of progressive emphysema, complicated by a chronic pleurisy, eventuating in a fatal heart attack) shocked the music world and effectively brought to a close a unique era in the history of American music. Bernstein was afforded innumerable honors at home and abroad. Among his foreign decorations were the Order of the Lion, Commander, of Finland (1965); Chevalier (1968), Officier (1978), and Commandeur (1985), of the Légion d’honneur, of France; Cavaliere, Order of Merit, of Italy (1969); Grand Honor Cross for Science and Art of Austria (1976); and the Grand Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (1988). In 1977 he was made a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, in 1981 of the American Academy and Inst. of Arts and Letters in N.Y., in 1983 of the Vienna Phil., and in 1984 of the N.Y. Phil. In 1987 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Phil. Soc. of London. He was made president of the London Sym. Orch. in 1987 and laureate conductor of the Israel Phil, in 1988. His 70 th birthday was the occasion for an outpouting of tributes from around the world, highlighted by a major celebration at Tanglewood from Aug. 25 to 28, 1988. Bernstein’s extraordinary musical gifts were ably matched by an abundance of spiritual and sheer animal energy, a remarkable intellect, and an unswerving commitment to liberal, and even radical, political and humanitarian ideals. As a composer, he revealed a protean capacity in producing complex serious scores on the one hand, and strikingly original and effective works for the Broadway musical theater on the other. All the same, it was as a nonpareil conductor and musical expositor that Bernstein so profoundly enlightened more than one generation of auditors. Ebullient and prone to podium histrionics of a choreographic expressivity, he was a compelling interpreter of the Romantic repertory. Bernstein had a special affinity for the music of Mahler, whose works drew from him unsurpassed readings of great beauty and searing intensity. He was also a convincing exponent of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Fortunately, many of Bernstein’s greatest performances have been captured on recordings and video discs as a testament to the life and work of one of the foremost musicians of the 20 th century.

Berresford, Susan Vail - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Susan Vail Berresford, Social and Economic Impact [next] [back] Bernstein, Lawrence F

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