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Leonard Bernstein

Composer. Conductor. Pianist. Educator. TV star. Humanitarian.

A prolific composer, Bernstein takes a break, composition in hand, to reflect for a moment in his studio.

A prolific composer, Bernstein takes a break, composition in hand, to reflect for a moment in his studio.

Leonard Bernstein was all this and more, an icon who arguably changed the world of American music more than anyone else in the last century. To mark Bernstein's 100th birthday next year, "Leonard Bernstein at 100" tributes are planned across the globe; the Colorado Springs Philharmonic will lead a six-week, communitywide celebration starting in January. The festivities will honor the man, his music and his impassioned advocacy for peace and civil rights. 

The man

"Lenny" was born Louis Bernstein on Aug. 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Mass., to Russian Jewish immigrants; he changed his name to Leonard as a teenager. His love of music was apparently sparked early on; his mother told of him playing an imaginary piano on his windowsill at age 4 or 5. 

When he was 10, his Aunt Clara provided a real piano to play on, and from there an astonishing career was spawned. A key moment came in 1943 when the virtually unknown Bernstein, then assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic, took to the Carnegie Hall podium for a live radio broadcast just hours after the guest conductor fell ill. 

Bernstein went on to became music director of the New York Philharmonic. He conducted the world's major orchestras, composed works for concert halls as well as the Broadway stage, and became a tireless advocate for fellow American composers. As The New York Times stated in its 1990 obituary for the musical giant, "his fast-burning energies, his bewildering versatility and his profuse gifts for both music and theater coalesced to make him a high-profile figure in a dozen fields, among them symphonic music, Broadway musicals, the ballet, films and television."

Among those many accomplishments, he was proudest of being a teacher, daughter Jamie wrote in an essay titled "Leonard Bernstein: A Born Teacher." His platforms were many: writings, lectures at Harvard, classes at the Tanglewood music festival and his televised "Young People's Concerts."

His music

Bernstein "was one of the most important, if not the most important, musical personalities of the 20th century," says Josep Caballé-Domenech, music director of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. "How many people did what he did?" 

As a conductor, Bernstein was in demand across the globe; he was the first American to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, among others. "He was probably the first American conductor who had huge success in the world," Caballé-Domenech says. 

As a composer, Bernstein was known for having two sides to his musical personality, with popular Broadway fare such as "West Side Story" on one hand and orchestral and choral works such as "Mass" and "Serenade" on the other. Caballé-Domenech sees little distinction between the two, but instead one musical genius who "crossed lots of lines and opened lots of doors."

And that genius was honored, with 11 Grammy Awards, a Tony Award, Kennedy Center Honors and many other awards. 

Bernstein was also a mentor to many young composers and conductors, Caballé-Domenech says. "The people I know who knew him said he was a real mentor, that he took care of them."

His causes

Bernstein was a fierce champion of peace and civil rights. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama. He protested the Vietnam War and founded the annual New Year's Eve Concert for Peace at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Late in life, he refused to accept the National Medal of the Arts from President George H.W. Bush as a protest against policies regarding the National Endowment for the Arts. On Christmas Day, 1989, less than a year before his death, he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and issue an appeal for brotherhood.

"He spoke out and fought doggedly for the causes he believed in," daughter Jaimie wrote in an essay; he wasn't afraid, she wrote, of "the various epithets — liberal, Jew, antiwar, radical chic, commie-pinko-queer — which over the years stuck to him like burrs on his coattails."

Bernstein's advocacy went beyond joining protests and staging fundraisers and was seen in his work. "Mass," written to memorialize John F. Kennedy, was a plea for peace and love. "West Side Story" was essentially "Romeo and Juliet" – but with an interracial couple, notes Nathan Newbrough, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. That was "pretty risqué" material at the time, he says.

"Some of the things that he did, some of the things that he said, were very unpopular at the time," Newbrough says. "So he took his international reputation and put it all on the line to take a stand for human rights and anti-violence. That's so inspiring to us and today feels so relevant."

"I think it is amazing," Caballé-Domenech says, "that we can celebrate such a personality."

A city celebration

The Colorado Springs Philharmonic will lead the city’s “Leonard Bernstein at 100” celebration with a series of 14 concerts over six weeks from late January through early March – “a blistering schedule for us,” notes Nathan Newbrough, Philharmonic president and CEO. The grand finale will be a showing of “West Side Story,” shown above the stage with original vocals and dialogue while the Philharmonic, conducted by Josep Caballé Domenech, performs the score. (For a full schedule, go to csphilharmonic.org.)

More than a dozen groups will join the celebration, focusing on Bernstein, his music or the causes he advocated, such as civil rights and anti-violence. Among the events:

• Colorado College: Bernstein Symposium, Feb. 23-24

• TheatreWorks & Opera Theatre of the Rockies: “Trouble in Tahiti,” Feb. 22-25, March 1-4.

• KCME 88.7: On-air programming, 

• Weekly Bernstein Hour, January-March.

• The Fine Arts Center: “Intimate Apparel,” Feb. 8 - Feb. 25.

• Pikes Peak Library District: Presentation of Bernstein Harvard lectures, “The Unanswered Question,” January-March.

• Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Institute: Screenings of “One Survivor Remembers” and “Joe’s Violin,” presented with Philharmonic musical interlude, Feb. 11.

• Gallery of Contemporary Art, UCCS: Art exhibition, Floyd Tunson, February.