An Ode to Bern­stein on his 100th Birth­day

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - CULTURE -

To­day we salute the ge­nius of that great Amer­i­can man of mu­sic, Leonard Bern­stein, born ex­actly one hun­dred years ago. The con­duc­tor Marin Al­sop de­scribed him per­fectly in The Guardian news­pa­per re­cently, as “the con­sum­mate amal­gam of high­brow, low-brow and ev­ery other brow.”

It was the musicals that brought him wide­spread fame. Who’s not fa­mil­iar with West Side Story? That 1950s take on the Romeo and Juliet tale, plac­ing it in work­ing class Man­hat­tan, teamed Bern­stein’s score with lyrics by Stephen Sond­heim and de­liv­ered such time­less stan­dards as Maria, I Feel Pretty, and Some­where.

By then, Bern­stein had carved out an im­pres­sive ca­reer in the clas­si­cal arena as well. He’d stud­ied con­duct­ing, and, in his mid-20s, had se­cured the post as as­sis­tant at the New York Phil­har­monic.

But he was also com­pos­ing. There had been a song, based on a text from the Book of Lamen­ta­tions, which he de­vel­oped into a sym­phony that he en­tered in a com­pe­ti­tion be­ing run by the New Eng­land Con­ser­va­tory.

It didn’t win, but proved an im­por­tant stag­ing post in his ca­reer. The sym­phony — Jeremiah — had its pre­miere in Pitts­burgh, in early 1944, with the com­poser him­self on the ros­trum.

It en­joyed a re­mark­able run of suc­cess, with a string of per­for­mances in ma­jor con­cert halls over the fol­low­ing months.

Leonard Bern­stein was now firmly on the mu­si­cal map, though his promi­nence, to­gether with his will­ing­ness to in­volve him­self in pro­gres­sive causes, had an un­wel­come side ef­fect.

He came to the at­ten­tion of the FBI, and in the reds-un­der­the-bed Cold War para­noia that had de­vel­oped in the United States, he found him­self a tar­get of the no­to­ri­ous Se­na­tor Joseph McCarthy.

Bern­stein’s was black­listed as a com­mu­nist, his mu­sic was banned at of­fi­cial func­tions, and his pass­port was with­drawn.

Though that de­ci­sion was re­voked — he be­came the first Amer­i­can to con­duct at La Scala, Milan — he was never far from the thoughts of the se­cret ser­vice.

A work com­mis­sioned by Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis for the open­ing of the Kennedy Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts in 1971 was deemed to be part of an anti-war plot to em­bar­rass the White House.

Bern­stein was the dy­namic di­rec­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic through­out the 1960s, and was also an en­ter­pris­ing ed­u­ca­tor, bring­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic to a younger au­di­ence through a num­ber of tele­vi­sion se­ries.

Quite pos­si­bly the pin­na­cle of Leonard Bern­stein’s achieve­ments came in De­cem­ber 1989 when, at the age of 71, he pre­sented Beethoven’s 9th Sym­phony on both sides of the Berlin Wall which had fallen only six weeks be­fore.

On Decm­ber 23rd, his multi­na­tional en­sem­ble per­formed in the west.

Then on Christ­mas Day, in the Konz­erthaus on the Gen­dar­men­markt in the old East Berlin, his or­ches­tra and vo­cal soloists, to­gether with three choirs from both sides of the Ger­man di­vide, brought Beethoven’s mu­sic to life at the heart of the now re­united city.

The sym­phony’s cli­max, the Ode to Joy, was amended for this his­toric per­for­mance. In­stead of “Freude” (joy), Bern­stein had his choirs sing “Frei­heit” (free­dom). This Ode to Free­dom was a crowning achieve­ment for Bern­stein the ac­tivist, as much as Bern­stein, the com­plete man of mu­sic.

George Hamil­ton presents The Hamil­ton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Satur­day and Sun­day.

Un­bridlged joy: Leonard Bern­stein con­ducts the Lon­don Sym­phony Or­ches­tra

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