Leonard Bernstein (Lawrence, MA, August 25, 1918 – New York, October 14, 1990) American composer, conductor, and pianist. He was one of the first conductors raised in the USA to receive international acclaim.
Born to a family of Russian immigrants descending from a line of rabbis, Bernstein began to study music when he was ten, despite his father’s disapproval. He studied at the Boston Latin School and then attended Harvard University, where he graduated with a thesis on The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music. While still a university student, Bernstein composed his first work, the incidental music for The Birds (1938), and met composer Aaron Copland, who became his lifelong friend.
He was nfluenced by modernist mentors as Mitropoulos, Reiner and Koussevitzky and they left their marks in his early conducting and recording choices. The American premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes – that Bernstein conducted in 1946 – was a consequence of these early teachings.
In 1943 he was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. At the end of the same year, replacing Bruno Walter at short notice, he became famous overnight conducting a concert which was nationally broadcast. His success as a conductor was followed shortly after by his success as a composer, with the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 and then with the ballet Fancy Free.
In the next years, Bernstein continued to appear as a conductor without giving up composition. He wrote for the theatre as well as orchestral music and even a film score.
From 1958 to 1969 Bernstein was music director of the New York Philharmonic. He was the first American-born conductor to hold the position. In those years, Bernstein became internationally famous, though not always appreciated (Harold Schoenberg could not stand him), and inaugurated the new Philharmonic Hall at the Lincoln Center. He was also one of the first conductors who used television to lecture on classical music, starting in 1954. Also, he was the one who popularized Mahler’s music.
Due to his growing reputation as a conductor, Bernstein had less time to compose, though his works (Mass, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and A Quiet Place) became more controversial and elaborated.
In his later years, Bernstein closely worked with the Wiener Philharmoniker. He conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in 1989, on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As a conductor, Bernstein had a flair for American (Copland, Barber Harris and Ives), Russian (Stravinsky, Shostakovich) and German music (Haydn, Schumann, and especially Mahler).
As a composer, he wrote works of all kinds: opera and operetta (A Quiet Place, Candide), three symphonies, incidental and orchestral music, and film and theatre music. His most popular work is the musical West Side Story.
West Side Story
A Quiet Place
Claudia Boyle, Joseph Kaiser, Gordon Bintner, Lucas Meachem, Rupert Charlesworth, Daniel Belcher, Annie Rosen, Steven Humes, Maija Skille, John Tessier
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
Kent Nagano, conductor
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Bernstein as a Conductor
◊ Verdi – Falstaff: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Rolando Panerai, Juan Oncina, Gerhard Stolze, Murray Dickie, Ilva Ligabue, Graziella Sciutti, Regina Resnik, Hilde Rössl-Majdan; Wiener Staatsopernchor; Wiener Philharmoniker; Leonard Bernstein, conductor; Sony, 1966 (2014) / View details / Buy from Amazon
◊ Bizet – Carmen: Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, Adriana Maliponte, Tom Krause; The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Leonard Bernstein, conductor; Deutsche Grammophon, 1973 (2018) / View details / Buy from Amazon