It is difficult to categorise Leonard Bernstein: pianist, composer, teacher or conductor. This prodigious musician was born into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants where music was an all-consuming and omnipresent passion. After studying at the Boston Latin School, the New England Conservatory of Music, Harvard and the Curtis Institute, the young Bernstein was noted and encouraged by great masters such as Mitropoulos and Koussevitzki. In 1943, while holding the post of assistant conductor to Artur Rodzinski’s at the New-York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein was noticed for standing in for Bruno Walter at the last minute. The lightning speed with which Bernstein’s notoriety spread propelled him to conduct the greatest orchestras in the world. A committed artist, he performed with the Palestine Orchestra in the Holy Land and similarly, with the Wiener Philharmoniker, he would switch from works belonging to the great repertoire to first performances of Olivier Messiaen, Francis Poulenc and Hans Werner Henze.
Leonard Bernstein: the limitless musician
Although the conductor’s charisma and warmth were renowned, the prolific, heterogeneous and eclectic composer cannot be forgotten. His classical reminiscences, Hassidic songs, American folklore and jazz made Leonard Bernstein the symbol of the American melting pot. His great spirituality demonstrated in his Symphony No. 2 or the Chichester Psalms was present in his forever-lyrical music.
Without either frontiers or barricades, from the music hall to the opera house and with a contagious passion, Leonard Bernstein succeeded in ploughing a furrow far from clans, cliques and quarrels. Whether he be playing the Rhapsody in Blue on the piano, explaining orchestral instruments to a hall of children, recording Mahler’s symphonies with the Wiener Philharmoniker or composing one of the works most performed throughout the world, (West Side Story), Bernstein proved that music was his ideal and absolute means of expression.
Upper right picture : Courtesy of ICA Classics. Cover for the Leonard Bernstein / Stravinsky DVD..