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October 25, 2001

Lecturer details Leonard Bernstein's multifaceted, multinational career

When American musical genius Leonard Bernstein died in 1990, some obituary writers, including those in The New York Times and Baltimore Sun, suggested that Bernstein had spread himself too thin, and should have focused on one area of music.

"My question to them is: Which area would you have had him sacrifice? Pianist? Teacher? Conductor? Composer? He excelled at all of them," said a slightly perturbed Ken Meltzer, Pittsburgh Symphony community spokesperson.

An unabashed admirer of Bernstein's, Meltzer referred to the dynamic musician alternately as "one of the great musical teachers of his era," "a first-class concert pianist," "a podium giant" and "among the top American composers" in his lecture, "The Career of Maestro Leonard Bernstein." The Oct. 18 lecture was co-sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program and the Israel Heritage Nationality Classroom committee. Meltzer punctuated his lecture with video and audio tapes of Bernstein's multi-faceted career, including his legendary debut as a conductor at age 25 when he filled in on a few hours' notice for the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Meltzer said that Bernstein almost did not pursue music because his immigrant father, Samuel, opposed it. The elder Bernstein had seen musicians in Eastern Europe barely eking out a living, sometimes playing for change in the streets. No son of his would do that, Meltzer said. Samuel, who had a successful beauty supply business, tried to dissuade Leonard from studying music, actually forbidding his son from playing the piano at home. The young Leonard would sneak off to a neighbor's house to practice.

(Meltzer said, "Later, the father explained, 'How did I know he was going to become Leonard Bernstein?'") Born in Lawrence, Mass., in 1918, Bernstein took piano lessons in high school and was trained in the classical piano at Harvard in the mid-1930s. In his undergraduate days he composed and performed incidental piano music. He continued his piano studies at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he also studied conducting and orchestration.

"Although he was best known as a conductor and composer, Bernstein continued to perform as a pianist throughout his career, often conducting while he was the soloist for piano concertos," Meltzer said.

Bernstein also was devoted to teaching throughout his life. His grandfather was a rabbi, and the self-effacing Bernstein acknowledged his own 'rabbinical streak,' Meltzer said. "He said of himself, 'I tend to be lecturey. I love to teach, but I don't want to bore anyone.' "Actually, he was one of the great teachers of his era. In addition to the pre-concert lectures with the New York Philharmonic, he taught at Tanglewood [the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home] for many years. He gave a series of lectures at Harvard in the early 1970s, and, what he was most proud of, the Young People's Concerts series, with the New York Philharmonic," which ran 14 seasons. Many concerts in the series were televised in the 1960s, introducing adolescent baby-boomers to classical music.

"His great teaching genius was to take complex ideas and distill them into common language. And important among Bernstein's teaching techniques was his ability to laugh at himself and to make music fun," Meltzer said.

Meltzer interspersed his re-cap of some of Bernstein's career highlights with the maestro's own descriptions, including his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic on Nov. 14, 1943. Bernstein recalled, "I had been at a party until 3 or 4 in the morning. I awoke with a hangover. I was informed at 9 a.m. that I had to conduct the 3 p.m. concert; no time for rehearsal."

Meltzer said, "He had never conducted a full program, and this was going live on coast-to-coast radio from Carnegie Hall."

Bernstein recalled, "When the announcement was made that I was replacing Bruno Walter, there were groans from the audience. There was light applause when I took the podium. The first three chords were like a great electrical shock."

Meltzer said, "He knew the orchestra was with him from that moment on."

Bernstein said, "I don't remember the performance. I heard it later on tape."

Meltzer pointed out, "The next day, a rave review of his debut made The New York Times front page. Rather extraordinary. The point is, he had the opportunity, but he also had the talent to take advantage of it. He was the podium giant of his time; of all time, really. He combined technical mastery, interpretive creativity and the ability to take chances."

Seemingly from that day forward, Bernstein was in demand as a guest conductor. In 1946, he conducted in London and Prague; in 1947, he conducted in Tel Aviv. In 1953, he was the first American to conduct opera at Milan's La Scala. In 1958, he was named music director of the New York Philharmonic and later held the title laureate conductor for life. More than half of his 400-plus recordings were made with that orchestra.

According to Meltzer, Bernstein generally preferred to be considered as a peer of the members of the orchestra when he conducted, with few exceptions. One such exception was the April 6, 1962 performance of Brahms's first Piano Concerto in D-minor with Canadian pianist Glenn Gould as soloist.

Bernstein told the audience before the performance. "I feel I have to say we have a curious situation: Mr. Gould offers a distinctively different interpretation, which I consider to be a severe departure from Brahms's [intentions]. But, Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist, that I take it on good faith that his interpretation is worthy of performance. It does raise an age-old question: Who is the boss, the soloist or the conductor? Well, sometimes it's the one, sometimes the other. Usually a compromise is reached, whether through persuasion, charm or threats.

"This [situation] has only happened to me once before, and that was the last time I conducted for Mr. Gould," Bernstein said, to much laughter from the audience.

As a composer, Bernstein had few American equals, Meltzer said. "If Bernstein had composed only 'West Side Story,' he would be justifiably ranked among the great American composers," Meltzer said. "But there were also three symphonies, the opera 'Candide,' numerous show tunes and chamber works," and that just scratches the surface.

"He incorporated both popular and classical elements in many of his compositions, including in 'West Side Story' with its operatic staging put to great popular effect, using operatic techniques, ensemble singing. In a play, if six people are speaking at once you have cacophony. In an opera you have a sextet."

Bernstein's first symphony, "Jeremiah," debuted in Pittsburgh in 1943, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.

He also composed the score for "On the Waterfront," the 1954 Academy Award winning film. He earned a Tony award and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.

Reflecting his versatility, Bernstein received many national and international awards including the Israel Philharmonic Lifetime Laureate Conductor designation, the London Symphony Orchestra title of Honorary President, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, the Beethoven Society medal, the Handel Medallion and dozens of honorary degrees and awards from universities.

"He was made an honorary lifetime conductor by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, quite a designation for an American, especially a Jewish American," Meltzer said.

National honors came from Italy, Mexico, Denmark, Germany and France. He earned Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts honors.

Throw in 11 Emmys for good measure.

Bernstein called himself, 'a musician in the true sense of the word,' Meltzer said. "He said: 'Music has always consumed me. I want to teach, to perform, to conduct, to compose, and I think I can do justice to them all.' Before Bernstein, I think it was generally conceded that America did not have music on a par with the Europeans. He may have felt he was a musician of the world, but I think he was America's musician."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 5

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