Leonard Bernstein Still Glitters After All These Years

Leonard Bernstein in 1971(Photo: Wikipedia)
Leonard Bernstein in 1971(Photo: Wikipedia)

We just acknowledged the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy on August 22.  On Saturday the 25th, one of the greatest figures in American music was born in the same year that Debussy died.  Leonard Bernstein came into the world in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918, and before he left it at the age of 72 in 1990, created a lasting legacy in both musical composition and conducting.

He had an amazing dual career as a composer and conductor, becoming music director of the New York Philharmonic the same year as his smash hit West Side Story, opened on Broadway in 1957.  In his later years, he spent more time conducting orchestras around the world and was widely acknowledged as one of the best, rivaling Herbert von Karajan as one of the “superstars” of their time.  He was even made an honorary member of the Vienna Philharmonic.

For some though, Leonard Bernstein’s  great success as a composer of popular music made his accomplishments in the realm of “serious” music suspect.  His three symphonies (1942, 1949, 1963) and Mass (1971), for instance, remain more problematic for critics than the outright success and fun of music for On The Town (1944) or Wonderful Town (1953), about two sisters from Columbus, Ohio who go to the Big Apple.

However, one work that straddles those musical worlds produced some of Leonard Bernstein’s most brilliant music, the musical/operetta Candide, based on Voltaire’s 18th Century satire.  It was produced both ways, opening as a musical on Broadway in 1956, starring Robert Rounseville, Barbara Cook, Max Adrian, and Irra Petina and went through several revisions and revivals. Bernstein himself was involved in a late recording with opera heavyweights such as Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, and Christa Ludwig singing major roles.

Here is Bernstein conducting the overture in 1989:

But perhaps the best way to hear some of Bernstein’s greatest music is on the 1956 Original Broadway Cast Recording.  Here is the final number: Make Our Garden Grow

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