His music remains timeless, his style endures, but 2018 marks the Leonard Bernstein Centennial—and musical attention must be paid.
At once icon and iconoclast, the American composer, conductor and educator was a symbol of the American century and of America itself. Born to immigrants in Lawrence, Mass., he is, among many other things, an enduring symbol of an American dream in which a family leaps from the shtetl to the highest echelons of society in a single generation—without losing its moral compass.
“He was a humanitarian from the word ‘go,’” said his daughter Jamie Bernstein. “A lifelong advocate for social justice and brotherhood and world peace, he worked all his life to make the world a better place through his music and in other ways.”
Jamie Bernstein, a narrator, writer and broadcaster in her own right, will share stories from her father’s life on Sunday, Feb. 18, at the Music Center at Strathmore while the U.S. Air Force Band punctuates the narrative with excerpts of some of Leonard Bernstein’s most beloved compositions from “West Side Story,” “Candide,” “On the Town” and more.
Sharing a parent’s memory while thousands look on–and an elite concert band performs–may seem highly unusual to most people, but Jamie Bernstein and her siblings have always been aware that their dad belonged to the world.
“Everybody seemed to know who he was,” she remembered. “It was a job that my brother and sister and I had from the beginning: to figure out what part of him belonged to us, that we could cling to as something private and personal—as opposed to what was shared with everybody else.
“We’ve been doing that all our lives,” she added. “It was hard when he was alive, and in a funny way, it became harder after he died because what was left was the legacy, which everybody shared.”
What a legacy it is, though. Jamie Bernstein likes to use a word “that was not a word my father knew because it wasn’t around back then, but I keep talking about how ‘broadband’ he was.
“He did so many different things, wore so many different hats—and I mean that metaphorically,” she added. “Because he never wore hats.”
The idea that Leonard Bernstein was “broadband” before its time seems obvious. As a composer, he shaped America’s sonic destiny by adding elements of jazz to classical music and incorporating cultural and ethnic flourishes to make a truly American sound. As a conductor– he’s best known for his tenure with the New York Philharmonic–he championed other American composers, from his friend Aaron Copland, whom he first met at Harvard University, to Charles Ives, whose work went largely ignored during his lifetime. Indeed, Leonard Bernstein ushered the role of conductor into the modern age, appearing on television and selling a lot of records. His daughter said his goal was to put American music on the map for everyone, and he advocated for others even as he created his own iconic sound.
“He wasn’t just a conductor of orchestras around the world,” said Jamie Bernstein. “He was also a composer—for symphony orchestras, for Broadway, for musical theater, ballet companies; he wrote operas, composed a film score. He really was able to speak in so many musical languages.”
“He was such an amazing educator,” his daughter said proudly. “He was basically always teaching: everything he did was a version of reaching out, grabbing you by the sleeve and saying, ‘Listen to this! I have to share this with you!’”
And she, in turn, is sharing everything Leonard Bernstein in this year, the centennial of his birth. Jamie Bernstein talks about the funny little stories—like her father’s Aunt Clara moving to Florida and leaving behind a piano. “The story my father told is that he wandered over to the piano and touched its keys and something came over him, and he knew from that moment on that music was what his life needed to be about.”
And his life turned out to be about music—and so much more, in ways that hadn’t even been imagined when he was a little boy fascinated by his aunt’s piano. Jamie Bernstein said that while her dad’s aptitude for music was, of course, extraordinary, it was his impulse to share his own enthusiasm for the music that made him “such an irresistible educator.” And he educated in unconventional ways, particularly with his Young People’s Concerts, televised from Lincoln Center starting in 1958.
“It was really a lucky coincidence that my father and television came up at the same time,” said Jamie Bernstein. “He was ideal for television, because he was such an excellent communicator and he was very easy on the eyes, which didn’t hurt!”
Neither did his willingness to treat classical music and 1960s pop with equal respect, presenting Liszt, Sibelius and the Beatles and introducing symphonic musical concepts to kids who might not otherwise have access. “I think his whole thing was to break down the walls between the genres, and to take the stuffiness out of anything that’s stuffy,” Jamie Bernstein observed. “To make it all accessible and interesting. I think that was his greatest gift, really, to be able to do that for such a huge audience.”
As the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, she noted, Leonard Bernstein “fiercely advocated for contemporary music and composers.” It was a decision that cost him.
“As a composer, he was not admitted into the pantheon of so-called serious American composers in his lifetime,” Jamie Bernstein said. “Because he kept defaulting to writing ‘tunes.’ And that was a no-no.”
A “no-no” that resulted in some of the greatest American music ever composed–like “West Side Story.” Which is where Sunday’s performance will end.
“It focuses on my father’s eternal youthfulness,” explained Jamie Bernstein. “The idea is that at his 100th birthday, he’s forever young, and so the concert focuses on a lot of music he wrote when he was in the younger part of his life; it goes up through ‘West Side Story’ and no further, though he wrote a lot of music after that.”
In true Leonard Bernstein fashion, she continued, the show will feature excerpts from his compositions sung by soloists, “and the idea is that all the soloists who perform will be young themselves. It’s about the youthful element in his music.”
Washington Performing Arts will celebrate Leonard Bernstein at 100 with “The Bernstein Story” at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Admission is free, but a ticket is required for entry. For individuals unable to secure advanced tickets, a stand-by line begins at 3:15 p.m. outside the Music Center. No lines may form before the designated time. At 3:45 p.m., all tickets are null and void, and patrons in the stand-by line will be allowed entry, subject to available seating. Call 202-785-9727 or visit www.washingtonperformingarts.org.