Thursday, August 25, 2011

Happy Birthday to: Leonard Bernstein

Legendary composer, conductor, pianist, author and classical music celebrity Leonard Bernstein was born on this day in 1918.

Happy Birthday, Maestro!

Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents Jennie (Resnick) and Samuel Joseph Bernstein, a hair-dressing supplies wholesaler from the Ukraine. His grandmother insisted that his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard, because they liked the name more. When Bernstein was 15, he officially had his name changed to Leonard.

Best known to the public as the longtime music director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein also conducted many other of the world's leading orchestras during his career.

Bernstein composing | 1968
As a composer, Bernstein is probably best known for writing the music for West Side Story, Candide, Wonderful Town, and On the Town. In 1952, Bernstein wrote a 1 act opera called Trouble in Tahiti for mezzo soprano, baritone and a greek chorus type trio of "radio singers". In 1983, Bernstein wrote a sequel to it called A Quiet Place. In it's original form, A Quiet Place was also a 1 act opera which was followed by Trouble in Tahiti after an intermission.

When the original version of the paired 1 acts premiered at Houston Grand Opera, the show was smacked down in the press. In fact, the New York Times said "To call the result a pretentious failure is putting it kindly". Bernstein and librettist Stephen Wadsworth subsequently pulled the show and began revising it. In the revision process, they cut many scenes and folded Trouble in Tahiti into A Quiet Place as a flashback sequence.

Last season at NY City Opera, I had the chance to see A Quiet Place and I am of the opinion that it should have a place on more stages. But, being that the show is very much a musical theater piece sung operatically, I can understand why some people are confused as to how, where and when it should be produced. Regardless, it should be produced - the story is poignant and the music is ... well ... it's Bernstein. Need I say more?

To call Bernstein a legend is a severe understatement. He was not only a legend, but also truly a lover of and advocate for all kinds of music, as well as a member of that very first class of major celebrities from the classical music world.

As with many legends, it seems that we lost Bernstein to early. He conducted his final performance at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990, with the Boston Symphony playing Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. A life long smoker - he had battled emphysema from his mid-50s - this final performance stretched him to the brink and he suffered a coughing fit in the middle of the Beethoven. The concert nearly ended - quite abruptly.

On October 14, 1990, Leonard Bernstein died of a heart attack caused by progressive lung failure - just five days after announcing his retirement. According to his Wikipedia page, on the day of his funeral his procession slowly moved through the streets of Manhattan where some construction workers removed their hats and waved, yelling "Goodbye, Lenny."

Bernstein is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

For your viewing ... Leonard Bernstein displays his fiery conducting style as he conducts the final movement of Verdi's Requiem. Soprano Martina Arroyo is the soloist.

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