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Music

Leonard Bernstein remembered on centennial of his birth

| Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, 12:03 a.m.
Journalists tour the Leonard Bernstein exhibit during a March 14 press preview at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The exhibit on the acclaimed composer and conductor runs through Sept. 2.
Journalists tour the Leonard Bernstein exhibit during a March 14 press preview at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The exhibit on the acclaimed composer and conductor runs through Sept. 2.
Leonard Bernstein in 1955
Leonard Bernstein in 1955

Leonard Bernstein’s life was a celebration of the joy of music, which not coincidentally is the title of one of the books he wrote. His passion for music was all encompassing — not just classical, but also jazz and musicals. He embraced The Beatles when most classical musicians shunned rock.

The centennial of his birth is being celebrated around the musical world at concerts and by the reissuing of his vast discography.

Bernstein was born Aug. 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Mass. He died Oct. 14, 1990, in his New York City apartment.

Many of his award-winning recordings were also best-sellers and have rarely been unavailable. His television programs and live concert videos are available on DVDs and YouTube.

Bernstein expressed his genius in many forms.

He wrote music for the concert hall, Broadway and film. He was an excellent pianist and a great conductor. And his gift for speaking about and illustrating music made it easy to deepen one’s own appreciation.

He felt his dual roles as composer and conductor helped him identify with Gustav Mahler’s music because Mahler split his time the same way. Mahler had earlier champions, but Bernstein made Mahler widely popular.

Emotional resonance

He was singularly attuned to the emotional resonance of music. In the first of his televised Young People’s Concerts, Bernstein said that the meaning of music is “the emotions it makes you feel,” not any program or ostensible story.

As a performer, Bernstein’s genius could be overwhelming at any age, but he achieved his finest balance of expression and discipline during his years with the New York Philharmonic. He loved to share unfamiliar music he had discovered for himself, but was also a complete master of the most famous pieces.

Bernstein was also a very generous person who went out of his way to be encouraging to many thousands of young musicians, even young critics. Yo-Yo Ma was 7 when he appeared on one of Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts.”

Here is a brief overview of Bernstein’s storied career:

5 Milestones

1944: World premiere of his Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony for the last time in 1984.

1954: Broadcast of his famous Omnibus television program about Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, in which he used some of the composer’s discarded sketches to show how the composer made the right choices in creating his famous symphony.

1957: Premiere of “West Side Story,” the revolutionary dance musical updating “Romeo and Juliet”

1958: Becomes music director of the New York Philharmonic

1966: Makes Vienna State Opera debut and begins long associations with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

5 best known works

“West Side Story,” musical and symphonic dances from the show

“Candide,” the Overture and show

“Chichester Psalms”

Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium”

Symphony No. 2 (“The Age of Anxiety”)

5 classic recordings

Aaron Copland: “Rodeo,” “Billy the Kid,” and “Appalachian Spring” (Sony)

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) (Sony)

Mahler: Symphony No. 3 (Sony)

Carl Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 (Sony)

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 (Sony)

5 Young People’s Concerts

“What Does Music Mean?”

“What is American Music?”

“Happy Birthday, Igor Stravinsky”

“Humor in Music”

“Fidelio: A Celebration of Life”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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