The Dreitzer Gallery in Spingold Theater will be dedicating a music exhibit for Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday until Nov. 18. Organized by the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, the exhibit features numerous documentaries and excerpts from Bernstein’s works, ranging from his youth all the way to his time at Brandeis where his legacy unequivocally prevails. In addition, original artifacts are available for display, such as a menorah given to Bernstein by the Israeli Children’s Choir, his ex-wife Felicia’s Hebrew Bible, and annotated manuscripts.
According to exhibition curator Ivy Weigram, the exhibit praises Bernstein’s larger-than life personality, delving into his musical works while also acknowledging his political influence.
One display explained, “Bernstein’s music held the solution to the 20th century crisis of faith,” with West Side Story in particular “embodying Cold War anxieties and changing notions of what it meant to be American.” In fact, navigating his way through political catastrophe was a lens through which Bernstein could express his liberal, jewish, commie-pinko and queer identities. Despite subdued emotions of witnessing the effects of World War II on America, racial injustice and discrimination, and even presidential assassinations, he maintained optimism, claiming “this will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more devotedly than ever before.”
This was certainly no lie, as the man had quite the credentials in the music industry. He began playing piano at a young age, often reciting operas and full Beethoven symphonies with his younger sister Shirley. After graduating from the Boston Latin School, he continued his studies at Harvard with Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston, earning a bachelor of arts cum laude, and studied conducting as well at the Curtis Institute of Music. Not long after, Bernstein earned an assistant conducting position with the New York Philharmonic. After a guest conductor was forced to withdraw from a performance due to flu symptoms, Bernstein stepped into the spotlight without having priorly rehearsed to take over, which earned him fame instantly. Ever since, he led the New York Philharmonic to unimaginable success, and his interpretations of Mahler symphonies, the Dvorak “New World Symphony,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and more renowned works prevail as some of the most iconic performances in music history.
Bernstein also had a tremendous record of compositions as well, including 22 orchestral pieces, three operas, nine musicals and several vocal and chamber pieces. His works project unique rhythms and tonal patterns unlike any other composer, often written in response to literature that inspires him. Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, for example, is a five movement composition scored for solo violin, strings, and percussion, and each movement echoes statements of love exchanged between philosophers in Plato’s work (Phaedrus, Aristophanes, Eryximachus, Agathon and Socrates, respectively). Each speaker’s opinions about the spiritual and physical aspects of love contain dramatic differences in emotion, and Bernstein emphasizes the changing sentiment from one movement to the next. Music Biographer Humphrey Burton describes the work as “ a portrait of Bernstein himself: grand and noble in the first movement, childlike in the second, boisterous and playful in the third, serenely calm and tender in the fourth, a doom-laden prophet and then a jazzy iconoclast in the finale.” Considering violinist Midori Goto broke her E string, the highest string on the violin, twice during her performance of this piece as a 14-year-old at Tanglewood, the intensity of his music should not even be questioned.
Aside from his compositions however, Bernstein is also renowned for his altruism in musical pedagogy. His Young People’s Concerts featured him lecturing about complex concepts such as modes, melodies, and sonata form, as well as the history behind pioneer composers like Gustav Mahler. He would often conduct the New York Philharmonic in playing various excerpts to demonstrate the concepts he introduced, occasionally using his own pieces as examples. Moreover, his concerts were the first ever to be televised from Lincoln Theater, earning Edison, Emmy, Peabody and Sylvania awards for excellence in television. The New Philharmonic continues to hold programs for young children to maintain Bernstein’s goal of inspiring a new generation of music lovers.