Leonard Bernstein and the Promise of America

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Leonard Bernstein — “Lenny” to his friends — would have been 100 Saturday. A child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Bernstein rose to become one of the world’s greatest musical icons. He brought us the Jets and the Sharks in “West Side Story,” as well as enduring New York serenades. Moreover, he showed us how making music “more intensely, more beautifully, [and] more devotedly than ever before” could bridge cultural barriers — and free people to dream.

Distinguished as a conductor, Bernstein led orchestras from Austria to Australia, and was the first American to serve as music director for the New York Philharmonic. As a composer, Bernstein was prodigious and multivarious, writing everything from classical symphonies to musicals and opera.

Bernstein’s music pushed boundaries — both across genres and between music and the world outside. Bernstein was known for a mesmerizing, all-consuming style on the conductor’s podium, engaging with the audience and getting carried away by the music. He teamed up with everyone from choreographers like Jerome Robbins to jazz legends like Louis Armstrong. And he was uncompromising: Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protégé who now serves as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, remarked that Bernstein would “reexamine every piece of music, to bring a fresh approach and new insights.”

Bernstein’s compositions, meanwhile, were daring, even featuring a wrong note or two. Bernstein took on subjects normally neglected in the conservatory. “West Side Story” reimagined Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in the context of ethnic and gang tensions in 1950s New York. In other compositions, Bernstein mused on overbearing masculinity, suburban blight and race relations in the White House. But he could be lighthearted, as well — some of his characters just want to conga!

Bernstein often reminded us that America has a place for all of us somewhere — a lesson that seems at least as relevant today as during Bernstein’s lifetime. He held an especially soft spot in his heart for New York — “a wonderful town” as he’d repeat over and over. Bernstein’s Judaism suffused his work, too, leading to a lifelong partnership with the Israeli Philharmonic orchestras, as well as numerous compositions based on Jewish prayers and themes.

On top of all this, Bernstein became a worldwide public figure. He launched international music festivals and supported social causes ranging from AIDS awareness to nuclear disarmament. And he played a crucial role in working to desegregate concert-music performance.

He gave classical music a public face: An inveterate educator, Bernstein invited everyone to experience and understand music through lectures and televised “Young People’s Concerts.” He helped pave the way for today’s musical ambassadors like Yo-Yo Ma, who had his television debut — at age 7 — in a performance Bernstein presented in front of then-President John F. Kennedy. If you grew up with classical music in the past 50 years, you at least partially have Bernstein to thank.

Decorated in life — Bernstein won 16 Grammy awards, as well as numerous international prizes — a centennial celebration has showcased his music worldwide, including a concert tomorrow evening at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts, where Bernstein studied, conducted and taught for many years.

So tonight, find a quiet place and put on “Chichester Psalms” or the overture to “Candide.” (And Saturday, tune in to Tanglewood!) You might fall a little bit in love with Bernstein’s music, if you haven’t already.

Happy birthday, Lenny!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.

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