LEONARD BERNSTEIN is one of the brightest and most esteemed figures in twentieth-century musical culture: conductor, composer, pianist, music educator, lecturer and author of books on music.
Born on 25 August 1918 in the town of Lawrence, 50 miles from Boston, into a family of Ukrainian Jews under the name of Lewis, which at the age of fifteen he officially changed to Leonard. In 1942, at the age of 24, he relocated to New York City.
He studied music at the Harvard University and conducting with Fritz Reiner and Dimitri Mitropoulos, whom he succeeded later at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1958-1969). He is friends with Aaron Copland.
Bernstein’s European debut was after World War II in 1946 at the Prague Spring Festival. His concerts were enthusiastically received. He also performed in Europe his first symphony, Jeremiah, which was critically acclaimed in the United States as the best work in the country in 1945.
Bernstein was the first American conductor to stand at the podium of La Scala (1953).
In 1958 he became principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic and made a major European tour, including the former Soviet Union. He also toured with the Vienna State Opera. Notable was his 1966 treatment of Verdi’s Faust. According to many critics this was the beginning of his worldwide fame as a conductor.
Having made twice recordings of Gustav Mahler’s complete symphonies (for Sonny and Deutsche Gramophon), Bernstein’s notable performances also include the symphonies of Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich; twentieth-century music by American and European composers; the premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie and others; conducted performances of the philharmonic orchestras of New York, Vienna and Boston.
Bernstein’s unique charisma was also demonstrated in his lectures on music intended for children and adults alike.
Awarded many top honors in his lifetime, Bernstein received much critical acclaim as a conductor and composer in addition to admiration. His musicianship was far from conservative notions. When he conducted, he felt that he was not just interpreting the music, but actually composing it. His oeuvre reflects the musical variegation and the varied emotions of the big American city.
Bernstein the composer authored musical-theatrical works, vocal, chamber and instrumental music. Works of his to achieve world renown were the opera Candide and especially his musical West Side Story (1955), considered a classic model in the genre. Bernstein’s mark on music history is vivid and undeniable; his name is legend. In 2010, Bernstein ranked second on the list of the twenty most prominent conductors of all time in the ranking of the BBC Music. He was multiple times laureate of the Grammy, Emmy, and the Tony Awards for outstanding achievement in the field of theater, as well as of the Japanese Premium Imperiale (1990) and many others. He received numerous high distinctions.
Bernstein’s centennial in 2018 was celebrated worldwide with over 3,300 events over two seasons.