Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent

  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
  • Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
Issue 118, December 2018.
Leondard Bernstein: A Once-in-a-Century Talent of Ukrainian Descent
 
From his birthplace in Lawrence, Massachusetts to New York, Berlin, South Africa, China, Israel, and Ukraine, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was a larger-than-life conductor, pianist, composer and all-around bon vivant. His fame was derived from his long tenure as the musical director of the New York Philharmonic, from conducting for many of the world’s leading orchestras, and from his iconic music for productions such as West Side Story, Peter Pan, On the Waterfront, and Candide. To mark the centennial of his birth, a two-year bonanza of concerts, stage productions, and programs is planned – including here in his ancestral home of Ukraine. In fact, just last month U.S. Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer Sean O’Hara traveled to Rivne – where Bernstein’s parents were from – to take part in the ceremonial opening of a memorial plaque. 
 
From Rivne to Harvard – the Early Years
 
Born to Ukrainian Jewish parents from Rivne, his father was destined to become a rabbi before arriving in NYC, where he became a fish cleaner. He eventually built a profitable business distributing beauty products and Leonard grew up understanding that business and success were paramount, so ‘occupations’ in the fields of music and art were simply off-limits. He started playing the piano at the age of 10, after his Aunt Clara needed a place to store hers while going through a divorce. While he loved everything about the instrument, his father refused to pay for lessons – so ‘Lenny’ raised money on his own. A natural from the start, by the time of his bar mitzvah, his father was impressed enough to buy him his own baby grand piano. The young Bernstein found inspiration everywhere and played with a voracity and spontaneity that impressed anyone who listened. His family spent their summers at their Massachusetts vacation home and he attended the Boston Latin School, where his met his first teacher and lifelong mentor, Helen Coates. He went on to study music theory at Harvard and spent a year of intensive training at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. 
 
Becoming a Giant – the New York Philharmonic
 
It was difficult to find work after graduating, but a touch of luck saw him land the assistant conductor position at the New York Philharmonic. Lenny had asthma, which kept him from serving in the military. As there were few able musicians in the country at the time due to the war, they turned to Lenny in 1943 when the company’s prestigious director fell ill. The young conductor amazed the crowd so much that the New York Times published a front-page article about his performance. Overnight, Bernstein became a sought-after conductor. He’d lead the Philharmonic 11 more times by the end of the season. Bernstein’s international career began to flourish following the war. In addition to conducting the New York City Center Orchestra, he guest conducted across the USA, Europe, and Israel. He continued to tour internationally throughout the 1950s and founded the Creative Arts Festival at Brandeis University. He discovered a love of teaching and his TV shows Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts allowed him to speak to a whole new audience of music lovers. Always a fan of both classical and pop music, he wrote his first operetta (Candide) in 1956. He also provided the music for 1957’s original Broadway production of the smash hit West Side Story, which garnered unanimous rave reviews matched only by its release on the big screen in 1961.
 
Bernstein the Legend – a Career Well-Lived
 
The USA and USSR signed their first post-WWII accord in 1958 allowing for the exchange of professionals in the cultural, technical, and educational fields. It was Bernstein that conducted the New York Philharmonic’s first tour to the USSR at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory Hall in Moscow. The tour played 50 concerts in 17 countries, including three weeks in the Soviet Union. Touring and his commitment to the New York Philharmonic left him little time for other activities, like composing. He stepped down as the Philharmonic’s Music Director in 1969 to focus on other areas. His long and storied career would see him lead some of the world’s leading orchestras, write music for some of the 20th Century’s most beloved stage and film productions, and win some of the industry’s most prestigious awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. He retired from conducting on 9 October 1990 and died of a heart attack less than a week later. 
 
Remembering ‘Lenny’
 
Bernstein’s command of multiple musical languages, the daring juxtapositions of genre and style, his political outspokenness and, of course, the sheer fluency of invention have ensured this musical giant’s legacy continues to grow. Public appreciation for the man and his music is evident as thousands of Leonard Bernstein centennial events took place across the globe in 2018. In addition to the unveiling of the plaque in Rivne, the home of his parents, Google honoured him with a ‘Google Doodle’ on the 100th anniversary of his birth (25 August), and Hollywood announced a new movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Leonard Bernstein. Based on Humphrey Burton’s biography of the musical legend, the story will follow Bernstein from his time conducting the New York Philharmonic at age 25 through his meteoric rise to fame, all while struggling both personally and publicly to be everything that everyone wanted him to be.