Big Breaks for Bernstein and Toscanini
Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini are two of the giants in the world of classical music. They were a couple of generations apart in age, but they both had huge international careers, and they both became the first “super-stars” of conducting in the United States. They also increased the audience for classical music in this country more than anyone else before or after them.
Bernstein was known for his charismatic personality, his wonderful ability as a music educator, and his gifts as a musician, composer and conductor. By the time he became music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, he was a household name in America. Earlier in the Twentieth Century Toscanini achieved a similar level of fame for the high standards and fierce integrity he brought to music-making with the Metropolitan Opera, The N.Y. Phil, and eventually the NBC Symphony–created for him, which made his name synonymous with artistic excellence.
Both these great artists had big breaks that paved the way for future recognition. You may have heard how Bernstein, a young assistant conductor, had to substitute at the last moment for an ailing Bruno Walter in a New York Philharmonic concert in November of 1943. This concert, which was also broadcast nationally on radio, gave his career a sky-rocket boost. Toscanini was a 19 year old cellist in a small Italian opera company on tour in Rio de Janeiro in 1886. Due to a local dispute, the company’s conductor refused to lead a performance of Verdi’s Aida. The musicians, who knew that the young cellist had memorised the entire opera, urged him to conduct them without any rehearsals. The performance was a success, and the word soon spread that this was truly a remarkable musician.
Both these great artists with strong ties to New York, Bernstein throughout his career and Toscanini more so later, would probably have achieved the same level of accomplishment even without those great stories of “The Big Break.” However, it’s always fun to identify those points in the life of an artist that you know allowed the great potential in them to find an opportunity to blossom.