Artist Profile: Leonard Bernstein

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Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) had it all: look, charisma and talent. The man behind West Side Story became an early legend, and stories about this self-effacing man abound. In retrospect, however, his career seems rather fragmented between the various roles of composer, conductor, pianist, teacher and television personality.

Bernstein is currently in the spotlight with the recent release of the film Maestro on Netflix. In this film, director Bradley Cooper, who also plays Bernstein himself, focuses on Bernstein’s marriage to his wife Felicia. His career as a composer and conductor is completely overlooked. The film has its merits as a relationship drama, but it feels unfocused and rarely becomes particularly poignant on a deeper level. In the scene where Bernstein conducts Mahler’s second symphony at Ely Cathedral in the United Kingdom, Cooper’s performance is almost a parody of the conductor, and who watches the film hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

As a young man, Bernstein studied conducting with two of the most famous conductors of the 20th century, Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky. His own breakthrough came  in 1943, when he replaced an ailing Bruno Walter to lead the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

As his conducting career took off in the 1940s and 50s, he also composed a series of successful Broadway musicals, including On the Town, Wonderful Town and West Side Story. One of his greatest works, the operetta Candide, with its charming overture based on Voltaire’s famous novel, was released in 1956.

He also composed symphonies, ballets, operas and a mass. Among his most impressive works is the beautiful, wistful Serenade for violin and orchestra (based on Plato’s Symposium) from 1954, which has been recorded by a number of famous violinists. Another intriguing piece is the second symphony (1949, revised 1965), The Age of Anxiety, for piano and orchestra. A mixture of jazzy sounds and dark, melancholy tones, it forms a compelling whole.

In the 1960s, Bernstein’s career as a conductor came to the fore. As leader of the New York Philharmonic, his broad repertoire and charismatic personality made him an educator of the highest order. He was not, however, a great orchestra builder. This is evident in many of his recordings with the orchestra, where the sound is often not nearly as polished as that of the orchestras in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston or Cleveland.

In 1969, Bernstein stepped down as music director of the New York Philharmonic to devote more time to composing, and he began conducting European orchestras more frequently. He developed a close relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic and also established a Mahler tradition in Vienna, a city that had long been reluctant to embrace the Jewish composer, often for antisemitic reasons.

Bernstein recorded his own music for both Columbia (Sony) and Deutsche Grammophon. He also made extensive contributions to other American composers, with many recordings of composers such as Barber, Copland, Harris, Gershwin, Schuman and Ives. His repertoire was also extensive, ranging from Bach and Beethoven to Messiaen and Ligeti.

Gustav Mahler, however, was the composer closest to Bernstein’s heart. He recorded Mahler’s symphonies in their entirety three times in his lifetime (two audio and one video) , and it is probably no exaggeration to say that his inimitable and intensely self-revealing interpretations of Mahler will live on forever.

Photo: Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication

Notable recordings

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