Leonard Bernstein, 25, had spent the morning scrambling to prepare for what he said shouldn’t have happened in years. It was November 14, 1943, and Bernstein had received the call informing him that he was scheduled to speak that night for famous conductor Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall, who was ill. Bernstein, who at the time was assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, rushed to visit the famous conductor. With Walter wrapped in blankets, the couple examined the sheet music.
Later that evening, Bernstein’s performance was greeted with an explosion of applause, although the audience – initially disappointed – had no idea that the man who would shape classical music for a generation had just made his debut. beginnings. In a trifecta of luck, the show aired nationwide on radio, made headlines on New York Times and was seen by Bernstein’s parents, who were in town.
“My first reaction was a shock reaction,” Bernstein told the New York Times following the show. “I then became very excited about my unexpected debut and, I may add, quite a bit scared.” By the end of this season, Bernstein would lead ten more times, by the end of his life, thousands.
The late American composer, conductor, educator, pianist and humanitarian would have turned 100 on August 25. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery joins the estimated 3,000 celebrations in Bernstein’s honor by displaying a portrait of the famous conductor in rehearsal at Carnegie Hall. Taken in 1960 by the influential French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, author of The decisive moment, Bernstein directs his whirring arms as if he were flying, a style all his own.
“I am very intrigued by the access Cartier-Bresson offers us, in this behind-the-scenes moment, away from the discerning eyes of the public,” says Leslie Ureña, associate curator of photography at the Portrait Gallery. “While Bernstein would have been aware of Cartier-Bresson’s camera, it is a more intimate moment of the master working with the Philharmonie to perfect a performance.”
Cartier-Bresson captured Bernstein’s spirit and his larger-than-life personality. He was conducting the orchestra with the effort of his whole body, drops of sweat running down his face and exaggerated expressions to convey the emotion of the music. His energy unified the orchestra and the audience went into ecstasies, discovering music at a high and unforgettable level.
In 1960, Bernstein graduated from Harvard and the Curtis Institute of Music and attended the Tanglewood Music Center. He had composed a ballet, five musicals, two operas, two great symphonies and various other orchestral, choral and theatrical pieces. Bernstein had led in Europe and Israel. He has developed educational programs for adults and children. He had married. He had been appointed musical director of the New York Philharmonic. Ultimately, he had become the face of classical music in less than 20 years after his debut.
“No one is as famous of a musician as Bernstein,” says Rob Kapilow, composer, conductor, songwriter and music commentator. “The world of music today really started with Bernstein. While he was alive he was absolutely criticized by critics for focusing on so many projects. The idea that we could actually go back and forth between the classical and popular world was inconceivable. They couldn’t believe that someone who wrote a Broadway or Jazz show could be a serious conductor.
Low and high music didn’t exist for him, it was just music. The divisions were unnecessary and restrictive and Bernstein found himself drawn to all the different categories of music.
“Bernstein was able to mix several types of music in one piece, but in this piece he allowed these different types of music to pit against each other,” says Ivy Weingram, associate curator at the National Museum of American Jewish History. and special exhibition curator Leonard Bernstein: The power of music. “He was more of a bowl guy than a melting pot guy.”
The crossing and juxtaposition of musical concepts was not the only effect of Bernstein’s work, it also radically redefined the profession of conductor. By tradition, conductors were born and trained abroad, distinguished themselves by their age, and largely focused on orchestral work. Yet Bernstein was young, American and Jewish.
“He was validly Jewish and he was validly American,” says Kapilow. “And in an elitist classical music world in a white tie and ponytail, he wasn’t the maestro but Lenny.”
One of his mentors, Serge Koussevitzky, even suggested that Bernstein change his name to ‘Burns’, warning that he ‘would never see the name’ Leonard Bernstein ‘on the marquee outside Carnegie Hall.’ “
“Bernstein considered changing his name, but said, ‘No, I will as Bernstein or not at all.’ So at a very young age we see him plant his flag with his Jewish identity and be ready to see where it would lead, ”Weingram explains.
As an American Jew, he began to research what he called the “crisis of faith”. Through music and his life, Bernstein explored his faith – or lack of faith – in religion, society, and government.
“Bernstein lived through a period of the 20th century that called into question many parts of his identity and his faith,” Weingram explains. “From World War II and the Holocaust to the Cold War and Vietnam, he thought a lot about what faith meant to him. All of these different aspects of his life and work contribute to why I think he said the thing he struggled with all his life was a solution to the crisis of faith of the 20th century.
We readily think of works like Kaddish or Mass, but Bernstein also lived this quest in his objective to educate the public in music or to support a social movement, like the Black Panthers or the AIDS crisis. Bernstein used his position on the catwalk and in society to inspire a generation and music lovers around the world.
“I think he’s the activist proto-artist, he set the tone, no pun intended, for the power of the arts to heal communities in times of crisis,” Weingram said.
In Bernstein’s mind, his portrait at the National Portrait Gallery broadens the definition of portraiture. While not posed, his movement in the photo showcases his personality.
“No one has ever been more of the definition of extravagant, hyper, over-the-top emotion than Bernstein,” Kapilow says. “There were times he would jump three feet off the podium, ecstatic, looking at God. He brought a level of enthusiasm, emotionality, openness. Bernstein was really all about connection, straightforward, visceral, hyper-emotional, in the way he worked, in the way he lived, in the causes he supported, Bernstein was right on it. Every bar, every note and every second of his life. “
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s portrait of Leonard Bernstein is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from August 23 to September 23. , 2018.