The Maestro at 100

A sweeping exhibit about Leonard Bernstein makes a stop at Lincoln Center to celebrate the music icon's 100th birthday

  • Leonard Bernstein at Harvard, 1973. Photo: Rick Stafford. Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

  • Show-opener: Bernstein's first piano, a 1917 Brewster upright. Photo: Val Castronovo

  • Some of "Leonard Bernstein at 100" at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Photo: The New York Public Library/Jonathan Blanc

  • The '50s-era desk where Leonard Bernstein composed the music for "West Side Story" and "Candide." Photo: Val Castronovo


In case you missed it: Since last fall, cultural centers around the world have been paying tribute to American music lion Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), who would have turned 100 on August 25. Think 2,000 events on six continents over two years for this conductor-composer.

Tucked behind the concert hall where he famously led the New York Philharmonic for 11 seasons, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, in collaboration with the GRAMMY Museum, is staging a visual symphony of items that tell the story of the man who made his Carnegie Hall debut at 25, substituting at the last minute for flu-stricken conductor Bruno Walter. He led a bravura performance of Schumann's “Manfred” overture, before moving on to Strauss, Wagner and more.

Bernstein's turn at the podium on November 14, 1943, was broadcast live to a national audience by CBS Radio and made the front page of The New York Times (see a copy here). It was a career-defining moment. In words, objects and triumphant sound, this exhibit chronicles the life and career of a music man who became the first American-born conductor of the New York Philharmonic when he was appointed its music director in 1958.

As his late brother Burton Bernstein wrote in the essay collection “Leonard Bernstein: American Original”: “Up to that point, conductors of major and minor American orchestras were imported, esteemed Europeans ... but a born-and-bred American Jewish kid? Out of the question!” Bernstein set the precedent, paving the way for the Philharmonic's Lorin Maazel (2002) and Alan Gilbert (2009).

His first piano kicks off the show and takes you back. It's a 1917 Brewster upright bequeathed to his family by an aunt who needed to unload it. “Lenny” was 10 and, per the exhibit label, “Upon touching it the day it arrived, Bernstein knew that his life was to be about music.”

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Russian-Jewish immigrants, he attended the Boston Latin School, Harvard and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner. He spent summers at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was mentored by the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky.

In 1942, after being classified 4F by the Boston draft board on account of asthma, he moved to New York to be a part of the music scene. As Barbara Haws, archivist of the New York Philharmonic, writes about postwar New York in “Leonard Bernstein: American Original”: “It was due to New York as the cultural capital that Bernstein became a household name even to people who only dreamed of visiting the city, who never set foot in a concert hall or went to a production on the Great White Way.”

Timelines mix with listening bars, photos, caricatures by Al Hirschfeld, vinyl covers (cue Mahler, his idol), videos, conducting batons, pencils, a podium, illustrated letters, home movies and personal effects such as cigarette boxes and bed slippers.

The thoroughness extends to the partial recreation of Bernstein's home-studio in Fairfield, Connecticut, featuring a 19th century stool that belonged to Brahms. Vitrines are filled with annotated score sheets and other tangibles from his classical concerts, Broadway musicals (e.g., “On the Town,” “Peter Pan,” “Wonderful Town,” “West Side Story”) and Hollywood films (“On the Waterfront”).

Items from lesser-known works such as “Kaddish,” his third symphony, and “Mass,” a theater work that draws on the Catholic Mass and was produced for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, demonstrate the maestro's range and spiritual side.

Bernstein prided himself on being a professional musician, but he was also a passionate arts educator. From 1958 to 1972, he led the Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, primers in classical music that were televised live to millions by CBS. A video clip shows him explaining the parts of the orchestra to attentive youngsters. As his brother Burton wrote, Lenny became a “rock-star celebrity” with these and other televised master classes.

We eagerly anticipated the section devoted to “West Side Story,” the legendary musical set on the streets of New York, with some prologue scenes filmed just north of the future Lincoln Center on West 68th Street. It opened at the Winter Garden in 1957 and was turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 1961.

Bernstein wrote the music, Sondheim the lyrics. Pick up a headset and watch the vintage trailer and spectacular dance moves, courtesy Jerome Robbins. For a more interactive experience, there's an adjacent booth that invites visitors to step in and belt out “America.” Bow down to the desk where the great musician composed “West Side Story” (and “Candide”).

Almost eight months before the Broadway opening of “West Side Story,” Bernstein made the cover of TIME (the February 4, 1957, issue is here). The magazine called him the “Mickey Mantle of music, a brilliant switch hitter, conducting with his right hand and composing with his left.”

He was a conductor, composer, pianist, educator, writer and 24/7 celebrity. “He showed the world, whether the world liked it or not, what a talented American could do,” Burton recalled.

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