25 August 2010


If conductor, composer, author, music lecturer and pianist Leonard Bernstein were still alive, today would be his 92nd birthday. It is impossible to believe that he passed from our midst twenty years ago. This vibrant, passionate virtuoso was a force of nature.

He became first conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1943, during a national radio broadcast, at the ripe young age of twenty-five, and went on to become the orchestra's music director, succeeding Bruno Walter. The 1950s marked his entry into television, in the Omnibus and Young People's Concerts on CBS. The latter program was my first systematic exposure to classical music, and I loved it. Bernstein had a gift for making complex ideas easily accessible to his listeners -- ideas which were illustrated by a live orchestra or by Bernstein himself at the piano. On PBS In the early 1970s, he hosted a historic six-part series on music history and theory as part of the Norton Lectures at Harvard University. The series was titled "The Unanswered Question", after the composition by Charles Ives. Bernstein took an interdisciplinary approach, drawing upon the work of Noam Chomsky to demonstrate the structural parallels between human language and human music (written symbology, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, conceptual content). I treasure my VHS copy of the lectures, and aspire to a DVD copy as well.

Interspersed with these endeavors were innumerable symphonic concerts, at home and abroad, as well as composing everything from West Side Story to Mass to Candide to On The Town. Bernstein was a musical omnivore, unafraid to incorporate elements of jazz into his orchestral writing, or elements of classical music into his compositions for Broadway musicals. His legacy is global and multi-generational.

So here's to a joyous, prodigious musical talent. Happy Birthday, Lenny.

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