A musician of unparalleled versatility, Leonard Bernstein achieved worldwide renown in a career spanning nearly five decades as an inspiring conductor and teacher, a wide-ranging composer and author, and a gifted pianist.
Born in Massachusetts in 1918, Bernstein grew up in Boston. After graduating from Harvard University, he continued his studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia with Fritz Reiner, Randall Thompson, and Isabelle Vengerova and his summers were spent at Tanglewood, as a student and assistant to Serge Koussevitzky. His big break came in 1943, with his remarkable, now historic, debut with the New York Philharmonic, replacing Bruno Walter in a concert that was broadcast nationally. He later became their Music Director, the first American-born to hold the post. In the years following, Bernstein served as Music Director of the New York City Symphony, was head of the conducting faculty at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, and Professor of Music at Brandeis University.
Having established an international career with major orchestras and opera companies all over the world, he forged especially close associations with the Israel Philharmonic, London Symphony, and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. Bernstein also conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala (as the first American conductor ever to appear there), and the Vienna State Opera. Bernstein’s wide repertoire centred on the Romantic period but ranged from the Classical era to his own time. He championed contemporary American composers, conducting many of their premieres and was well known as an exponent of Sibelius, Nielsen, Shostakovich and, above all, Mahler, who he helped to establish as a major figure. His performances were never routine and often revelatory, with programmes frequently including piano concertos that he directed from the keyboard.
As a composer, he created a body of works extraordinarily diverse in form and style, including symphonies, pieces for orchestra and chorus, ballets, film scores and operas. He had a natural grasp of the idioms of popular music and jazz, allowing him, as it had Gershwin, to move freely between the concert hall and the musical theatre. His Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers opened the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and became the first work by an American-born composer to be produced at the Vienna State Opera. Many of Bernstein’s best known concert works are drawn from his stage music, but his mastery of orchestration remains evident in works such as the Divertimento for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Concerto for Orchestra for the Israel Philharmonic. Some of Bernstein’s most successful concert pieces include voices and his finest work in concerto format is the Serenade for violin and chamber orchestra.
Bernstein received the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, won 11 Emmy Awards, and his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, extending over 14 seasons, helped to create and nurture an entire generation of American concertgoers. His writings on music have been published in numerous languages and he conducted many of his own compositions for Deutsche Grammophon. Other recordings include performances with the Vienna, New York, and Israel Philharmonic, and the Concertgebouw and Bavarian Radio orchestras, playing symphonies, complete concert cycles, ballets, and operas.