In many performing art circles, the year 2018 has special meaning. This would have been the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, one of the most important and celebrated musicians in American history.
He was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Jewish villages in northwestern Ukraine in the first decade of the 20th century (a time when nearly 50,000 Jews were coming to America from Russian territory each year). They met and married shortly before Lenny — as the entire musical world would come to call him — was born.
When he was 10, an aunt gave his family an upright piano, and from that moment he was hooked. Soon he was playing better than his first teacher, who was quick to recognize how gifted he was. He graduated Harvard in 1939 where his senior thesis was “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music,” in which he examined how contemporary composers like Gershwin and Aaron Copland incorporated other musical styles into what they wrote, thereby making a distinctively American music.
The topic pointed to his future tendency to write in various forms and styles. Through his career as a composer he wrote symphonies, Broadway musicals, choral pieces, film scores, ballets, operas, chamber music, piano music and more.
Orchestras all over the country are having Bernstein celebrations this year. The San Diego Symphony is spending the month of May performing some of his most notable works (including his Symphony No. 1, titled “Jeremiah,” to which I’m listening as I’m writing this). This month and last, the Charlotte Symphony played concerts from his wide-ranging repertoire. In two concerts next fall, the Utah Symphony is playing a “Bernstein on Broadway” program and his opera “Candide.”
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (at Lincoln Center) just wrapped up a monthslong exhibit on the Bernstein centenary with all sorts of artifacts being on display from batons to handwritten scores from “West Side Story” to that childhood piano.
Closer to home, several performing arts organizations in Austin are teaming up at the end of June for a blockbuster two-night performance of Bernstein’s 1971 “Mass” that will involve the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Austin, several choirs and numerous other groups. It’s being billed as the “largest performing arts collaboration in Austin’s history,” which is certainly saying something.
Several other events across the city, including a young composers concert, are happening as well. Bravo to Austin for such an undertaking. It’s right in line with the spirit of the man who conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in Berlin at the fall of Berlin Wall, substituting the word “Freedom” for the word “Joy” in the famous “Ode to Joy” climax of that timeless work. This is exactly what every symphony in the country should be up to as they celebrate one of the most important conductors, composers and educators in American history.
There’s a line in “Hamilton” when the character of Aaron Burr sings of Alexander Hamilton, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time / Write day and night like you’re running out of time,” and one gets the feeling, after toting up Bernstein’s lifetime of conducting orchestras all around the world, undertaking educational projects at every turn, and composing in every style from classical symphonies to jazz-influenced Broadway smashes, that such a question could’ve been asked of him.
That restlessness, that wanting to be all things at once, that inability to decide what you want to be when you grow up and a conviction that all things are possible, is what makes Bernstein so American.