In 1957 the New York Philharmonic found itself in crisis. It had hit an artistic plateau and saw itself losing more and more relevance with its audience each year. It needed a serious shot in the arm if it was to emerge as the shining beacon of culture for America's largest city.
Enter Leonard Bernstein. On the heels of such popular Broadway successes as On the Town and West Side Story, Bernstein seemed the answer to the Philharmonic's prayers. As one ecstatic musician from the viola section put it: "For the first time in our history, we've got a solid bridge between the young people around the country and the Philharmonic."
Never mind the fact that Bernstein had precious little experience leading major orchestras (he had spent some time with the New York City Symphony and the Israel Philharmonic and as a guest conductor with other orchestras, but he had hardly proven himself worthy to lead such a venerable ensemble as the New York Philharmonic) — Bernstein was young (39), talented, handsome, and enjoyed an easy eloquence. This made him tailor-made not only for a new generation, but also for a new medium: television.
And then there was that fateful Sunday afternoon, 15 years earlier, that every New Yorker still remembered. When guest conductor Bruno Walter was struck down by the flu and music director Artur Rodzinski was stuck in a snowstorm in Massachusetts, the young assistant conductor had to step in at the last minute to conduct that day's matinee. Totally unrehearsed, Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in a daunting program of Schumann, Rózsa, Wagner, and Richard Strauss's complex 40-minute orchestral showpiece, Don Quixote. The result was an inspired performance that was broadcast into the homes of millions of amazed music lovers.
Once named to the top spot, Bernstein systematically began breaking the mold of the traditional maestro. He was the first conductor to embrace being addressed by his first name (and a diminutive of it at that — he preferred Lenny), and he rubbed many of the cultural elite the wrong way with his extravagant gestures on the podium and insistence on talking directly to the audience. Such traits are now exactly what modern audiences and symphonies often look for in a conductor, but at the time Bernstein was blazing new trails in the name of reinvigorating classical music for a rock-and-roll crazed nation.
"There was no audience-orchestra relationship when I arrived," Bernstein once said. "The audience felt remote and left out." So Lenny opened his rehearsals up to the general public and launched the now legendary "Young People's Concerts." Informative, easygoing, witty, and artistically impeccable, these broadcasts directly from Carnegie Hall inspired a whole new generation of musicians and music lovers, including the DSO's own music director emeritus, Andrew Litton.
Of course, Bernstein continued to inspire throughout his long career and matured into a conductor of unassailable skill and vision. I will leave you this season with words of his that still resonate with me today, words that I hope will resonate with conductors for generations to come:
"I share whatever I know and whatever I feel about the music. I try to make the orchestra feel it, know it, and understand it too… The whole joy of conducting for me is that we breathe together. It's like a love experience."
Jamie Allen is the education director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.