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We Come to Appraise Leonard Bernstein As Well As to Praise Him

Quick, name the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Drawing a blank? How about naming the most famous living American conductor? Still nothing?

At one time, practically every man, woman and child in America knew the answer to both questions. And it was the same answer for both.

Leonard Bernstein was so beloved as a composer, conductor, and teacher that when his funeral motorcade passed through the streets of New York in 1990, construction workers took off their hard hats, waving and shouting “Goodbye, Lenny!”

Born 100 years ago, Lenny was the first American conductor to achieve international acclaim in the rarefied atmosphere of classical music. Born to a middle-class, immigrant Jewish family, Bernstein quickly dazzled the world with his talent, bravura, brilliance, passion, authority, exuberance, versatility, sophistication, warmth and magnetism. He was one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.

A man of enormous appetite and enthusiasm, Lenny had many love affairs, in addition to sustaining strong family bonds with his wife and children and his siblings. The disparate objects of his consuming passion included Israel and Vienna, Mahler and Mozart, Jewish culture and musical theater, rock music and the great concert halls of Europe, anagrams and crosswords, smoking and drinking, water skiing, elegant Manhattan parties with illustrious colleagues clustered around the family piano, his family and his fans, his many enduring friendships, and teaching, teaching, teaching at every opportunity.

The centennial of Bernstein’s humble birth – August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts – is being celebrated with appropriate fanfare around the globe.

I have the pleasure of giving the “Talk Under the Tent” on Leonard Bernstein’s life and work for the Colorado Music Festival on opening night, Thursday June 28, at 6:30 pm. (The free talk is on the north side of Chautauqua Auditorium.) The concert program includes one of Bernstein’s most lyrical orchestral works, his “Serenade,” with a luscious role for violin soloist Vadim Gluzman. The exciting evening of music also features Tchaikovsky’s turbulent Fourth Symphony and John Corigliano’s “Promenade Overture.”

The CU College of Music is presenting a festival dedicated to appreciating Bernstein’s legacy, with concerts and lectures open to the entire community. On Sept. 23, I will participate in a panel on Bernstein at 6:00 pm in Atlas 100.

The CU Bernstein at 100 festival runs Sept. 8 through Oct. 28, beginning with a CU on the Weekend lecture on Bernstein as a teacher and concluding with CU Opera’s production of “West Side Story.”

Other highlights include:

September 24, 4 pm: Colloquium with Jamie Bernstein, Glenn Dicterow, and Carol Oja

September 25: Faculty Tuesday chamber recital

September 27: Symphony Concert with Jamie Bernstein and Glenn Dicterow

Sept 23: Bernstein’s ballet “The Dybbuk

Oct 21: Screening of “West Side Story”

 

As we gather to appraise Bernstein as well as to praise him, it is apparent that his influence is inestimable and pervasive. It is also crystal clear that his accomplishments were so enormous and varied, and his extroverted personality so well suited to celebrity, that he became the face of classical music in America for generations. Quite simply, it is unlikely that the world will ever produce a popular genius to rival the Maestro.

About Kathryn Bernheimer

Director of Menorah: Arts, Culture and Education at the Boulder JCC. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time."

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