Personalities | Leonard Bernstein | Modern Era | Classical
American composer and conductor
Bernstein studied at Harvard and the Curtis Institute and became a protegé of Koussevitzky during summers spent at Tanglewood. His conducting break came in 1943, when the New York Philharmonic asked him to step in after its guest conductor was taken ill. The following year, still in his twenties, Bernstein wrote a successful Broadway musical, On the Town (1944) and a large-scale, critically admired concert work, the Jeremiah Symphony (1944). He was also a fine enough pianist to direct concertos from the keyboard. His composing output – at first extensive – was reduced by the success of his career as a conductor (he was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958), but other musicals followed, notably the quasi-operatic, frequently revised Candide (1956) and the hugely successful West Side Story (1957). Jeremiah was followed by two other symphonies, Age of Anxiety (1949), with solo piano, and Kaddish (1951), with vocal soloists and chorus. His concert works – including the Chichester Psalms, the Mass and Songfest – often incorporate elements of jazz and popular styles; his musicals and light music are finely and seriously crafted.
Serenade, Joshua Bell, Philharmonia (cond) David Zinman (Sony)
West Side Story
Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with clashing Montagues and Capulets replaced by rival gangs in 1950s New York, Bernstein’s West Side Story mingles brilliantly the popular dances of the period (including Latin rhythms; one of the gangs is Puerto Rican) with love music not unworthy of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers.
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