Whether he was conducting, composing or communicating, Bernstein was a stylish innovatorby Alexandra Coghlan / April 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Between 1958 and 1972, Leonard Bernstein presented 53 episodes of his pioneering Young People’s Concerts on US television. In over 50 hours of broadcasting one moment stands out. It’s in the episode entitled, unpromisingly, “What is a Mode?” Faced with the task of explaining the “tongue-twisting” Mixolydian mode to his Sunday-afternoon audience, Bernstein sits down at the piano. Dressed in a suit and tie, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra ranked behind him on stage, he begins to play and sing: “Girl, you really got me goin’. You got me so I can’t sleep at night…”
That delicious friction between high and low, the incongruous spectacle of a world-famous conductor and composer singing the Kinks on national television—and the wonderful ease with which Bernstein then transitions into Debussy—says everything you need to know about this singular figure.
Bernstein was an overwhelmingly gifted, era-defining musician, the composer of scores including West Side Story, Candide, Mass and the three genre-defying symphonies, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a skilled solo pianist, educator, author and activist. But he was also a showman who relished his personal celebrity as much as his professional career. He was a classical musician who composed for Broadway, closer in some ways to Stephen Sondheim than Igor Stravinsky: the grip of his signature baton was fashioned from (what else?) a champagne cork. Bernstein was the artist the public loved and the critics loved to hate.
Critical Lives: Leonard Bernstein