Leonard Bernstein

Selection from "West Side Story"


Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and he died on October 14, 1990 in New York City. He was married to actress Felicia Montealegre for 25 years, and they had four children.

Bernstein was exposed to music at an early age, and he played the piano from the age of 10. He attended Boston Latin School and Harvard University, where he received an A.B. in 1939. He continued his studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia from 1939 to 1941. Then he studied conducting with Serge Koussevitsky and Fritz Reiner, two of the most famous conductors of the day.

In 1943, Bernstein was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He became an overnight success on November 14, 1943, when he unexpectedly substituted for the conductor Bruno Walter, who had become ill. Bernstein was able to conduct the concert with confidence and composure. He knew the music well and his interpretation met with the approval of the audience. After that, Bernstein became conductor of the New York City Center Orchestra from 1945 to 1947. He also appeared as a guest conductor in other American cities as well as in Europe and in Israel.

In 1953, Bernstein was the first American to conduct at La Scala in Milan, Italy. From 1958 to 1969, Bernstein was the conductor and musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra,. He also appeared as a piano soloist while conducting from the keyboard. The orchestra made several tours to Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan, and Latin America. Bernstein achieved worldwide popularity on these travels, and he was sought after as a guest conductor with major orchestras in many countries.

As a composer, Bernstein combined classical techniques with jazz idioms and Jewish liturgical themes, which can be heard in his Jeremiah Symphony (1942) and his oratorio Kaddish (1963). He also employed jazz rhythms in Age of Anxiety, written for piano and orchestra in 1949. The Chichester Psalms (1965) and Mass (written for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC in 1971) are examples of his liturgical works.

Bernstein wrote several Broadway musicals, among them On the Town (1944), Candide (1956), and West Side Story (1957). He also wrote the musical score for the movie On the Waterfront (1954) as well as several dance, song, and theater pieces.

In the early 1960s, Bernstein instituted a series of Saturday afternoon Young People's Concerts on television, at which he explained the story of the music, had members of the orchestra demonstrate their instruments, and generally introduced young people to classical music. Other conductors have used the same format with somewhat less success than Bernstein enjoyed.

Toward the end of his career, Bernstein was permanent guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic as well as the Israel Philharmonic.

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