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Fri Aug 24, 2018, 11:53 AM

New York Today: A Leonard Bernstein Centennial

'Leonard Bernstein, the musician and conductor, would have turned 100 years old tomorrow.

Bernstein, who died in 1990 at the age of 72, wrote symphonies and operas as well as scores to ballets and Broadway plays, like “West Side Story,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Candide.” He was also the director of the New York Philharmonic from 1959 to 1969.

“He was eclectic down to his fingernails,” said Humphrey Burton, a friend of Bernstein’s who also wrote the biography “Leonard Bernstein.” “He’s not your average classical composer. He’s not your average showbiz composer, either. He struck a chord with a far broader range of listeners than the norm.”

He was the rare kind of classical music conductor whose fans would lunge at his car and tear at his clothing.

But fame came to Bernstein through a stroke of luck.

A Jewish boy from the Boston suburbs, Bernstein moved to New York City in his early 20s and spent time playing piano at the Village Vanguard in the West Village and working at a music-publishing house. At 25, he was hired as an assistant conductor at the Philharmonic.

“Normally all the assistants did was to get the scores ready, read the mail, do the chores, take notes, that sort of thing,” Mr. Burton said. But one snowy Sunday afternoon in 1943, the guest conductor from Germany was sick, and Mr. Bernstein took over the program, to great success.

“Lenny rode his luck and he was front-page news from then on,” Mr. Burton said. Later, as the Philharmonic’s musical director, he turned it into the best orchestra in America, Mr. Burton added.

“He used it as a political instrument,” Mr. Burton said. “He went to Berlin when the wall was up. He went to Russia, and made friends with the Russians — tried to as part of the Nixon peace offensive, and so on.”

“And he changed the face of music, temporarily, at least, by making a generation, maybe two, very much more aware of classical music than they ever had before,” Mr. Burton said. He brought classical music into the homes of Americans by insisting that the Philharmonic’s concerts for young people were televised.'>>>


The New York Philharmonic is celebrating Bernstein during August with Bernstein-themed programming on its radio program “The New York Philharmonic This Week,” hosted by Alec Baldwin, on WQXR 105.9. You can find your local station and show times here. https://nyphil.org/watch-listen/audio/radio-stations

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