Leonard Bernstein's Famous Debut

Classic Arts Features   Leonard Bernstein's Famous Debut
Fifty years ago, Leonard Bernstein conducted his first concert at Carnegie Hall.

"I've just taken a fine apartment in Carnegie Hall. It all gets more exciting each day," wrote Leonard Bernstein to his former piano teacher, Helen Coates, in September 1943. A few weeks earlier, the 25-year-old Bernstein had been appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a first for an American-born, American-trained musician.

One of Bernstein's duties as assistant conductor was to study the repertoire for each concert just in case he would have to fill in for an indisposed conductor. "Just in case" rarely came for most assistant conductors, but it came for Leonard Bernstein in a most dramatic way.

On Saturday, November 13, 1943, Bernstein was accompanying the singer Jennie Tourel in a concert at Town Hall that was to feature one of his own compositions. Bruno Zirato, Associate Manager of the New York Philharmonic, informed Bernstein shortly before the recital that the conductor Bruno Walter had been taken ill and that Bernstein might have to conduct the Sunday afternoon concert‹one that would be broadcast nationwide. After the recital, Bernstein attended a reception and didn't arrive home until 4:30 in the morning. He looked over the scores, fell asleep, and at 9:00 a.m. received a call saying that indeed he would be conducting that afternoon without the benefit of a rehearsal. In fact, this would be his first time in front of the orchestra.

Waiting by the stage as the manager informed the audience that Walter would not be conducting that afternoon, Bernstein recalled hearing "many groans,"and some people left. John Corigliano, concertmaster of the Philharmonic (and father of the famous composer), told Bernstein reassuringly, "Don't worry, we are with you." The audience responded enthusiastically after Bernstein finished each work, and by the final chords of the Prelude to Wagner's Die Meistersinger, the audience was on its feet shouting. Many rushed the stage. Backstage was bedlam with reporters, photographers, audience, and Bernstein's parents all trying to get to the conductor. The next day's New York Times carried a front-page story, and an editorial stated, "It's a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air-waves."

Bernstein appeared another 427 times at Carnegie Hall, becoming one of the most frequently heard conductors on the Carnegie Hall stage.

‹Gino Francesconi
Archivist and Museum Director, Carnegie Hall

Visit the Rose Museum to find out more about Carnegie Hall's rich and diverse history.

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