On November 14, 1943, a slim, young conductor stepped onto the stage of Carnegie Hall to lead the New York Philharmonic in a nationally broadcast concert. The unknown American, wearing his best gray suit and a confident air, was filling in for the legendary maestro Bruno Walter. The next morning the Daily News compared the 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein's Philharmonic debut to "a shoestring catch in center field ... make it and you're a hero, muff it and you're a dope. ... He made it."
Fifteen years later that young unknown became the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. This fall the Orchestra is marking those watershed moments, as well as his 90th birthday year, in two subscription programs at Avery Fisher Hall and a concert at Carnegie Hall, all conducted by Americans: Lorin Maazel, David Robertson, and Alan Gilbert. How fitting, given that Bernstein's younger brother, Burton, sees that debut and his brother's subsequent Philharmonic appointment as setting the stage for the acceptance of American conductors in a field that had previously been dominated by Europeans. "The proof is in the current history of the Philharmonic with Lorin Maazel and, soon, Alan Gilbert as Music Directors of the Philharmonic," says Mr. Bernstein. "No one makes a big deal of it, but it's really because of Lenny."
These concerts are part of Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, a collaboration between the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall. The citywide festival, which also involves numerous other cultural institutions, will comprise more than 30 events, appropriate for the celebration of a man who was an acclaimed conductor and also a trailblazer as a com- poser, cultural ambassador, media pioneer, educator, political activist, and darling of audiences and colleagues alike, from Broadway stages to the world's leading concert halls.
"Lenny" belonged to the world, but his career was based in New York, and now his city is set to celebrate him in grand Gotham style. In the preface to a new book,co-written with Burton Bernstein (see sidebar, opposite), the Philharmonic's Archivist/Historian Barbara Haws observes: "Lenny was the most photographed, televised, documented, scrutinized, analyzed, criticized, and, finally, lionized and celebrated artist of the second half of the twentieth century. What more is there to say?" The answer is, plenty, as this festival that's packed with concerts, film screenings, lectures, exhibitions, and educational programs demonstrates.
The Orchestra's contribution, of course, focuses on Bernstein, the musician. This month (September 25 _27) his place in the pantheon of Philharmonic maestros who wielded both baton and pen is represented with a program led by Lorin Maazel; it features works composed by Philharmonic Music Directors, including Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety, and music by Mahler, Pierre Boulez, and Mr. Maazel himself. The inclusion of Mahler, who led the Philharmonic from 1909 to 1911, is also a tribute to Bernstein's role in promoting his predecessor's music, which had previously been performed only rarely. "Our audiences have been brought to understand Mahler's music by its great exponents, including Leonard Bernstein," says Mr. Maazel. "Through my tenure at the Philharmonic, I have added my name to the list of conductors who have believed in Mahler and have carried his music forward to the coming decades." Bernstein also championed American composers, a facet of his legacy that is reflected in the season's first Hear & Now program, led by David Robertson, comprising Bernstein's Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah,and works by Elliott Carter, Christopher Rouse, and Bernstein's friend, Aaron Copland (October 30 _31 and November 1).
The Philharmonic's celebration will culminate at Carnegie Hall on November 14 : 65 years to the day after that historic debut : with a program led by Alan Gilbert that showcases Bernstein's compositional eclecticism, with his On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite, extracted from a film score; suites from his Broadway smash hit West Side Story; and his Serenade (After Plato's Symposium). Philharmonic Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow will be the soloist in the last work, which he first learned for a 1986 Bernstein-led U.S. tour. He calls it "a very deep piece with a wonderful last movement," and recalls that "at one point during a rehearsal, Lenny turned to me and said 'this is the best piece I ever wrote.'"
Mr. Gilbert will return to Avery Fisher Hall to lead Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, and Beethoven's Eroicaon November 24 for the Philharmonic's presentation of the Juilliard Orchestra, a tribute to Bernstein's lifelong commitment to education. To acknowledge Bernstein's singular ability to inspire even very young music lovers : most notably through his televised concerts for children : the first of the season's Young People's Concerts will offer The Capitals of Music: Bernstein's New York, with Bernstein's daughter, Jamie, as host, joining conductor Delta David Gier (October 18).
This is only a taste of the activities that will pay tribute to Leonard Bernstein, a towering figure of the 20th century who left a unique and outsized imprint on the cultural life of the city and the nation. "From the moment of his legendary conducting debut to his final concert, Leonard Bernstein inspired everyone he encountered," says Philharmonic President and Executive Director Zarin Mehta. "Even today, Lenny's legacy : as conductor, composer, and educator : continues to resonate. We are thrilled to be celebrating Leonard Bernstein and his music with our partner, Carnegie Hall, and hope that all New Yorkers will join us."
Madeline Rogers is a creative-services consultant to non-profit organizations in New York City, and former Director of Publications of the New York Philharmonic.