Bernstein lives on through his music

Conductor Leonard Slatkin (left, with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra) will lead a number of works to remember Leonard Bernstein next year.
Conductor Leonard Slatkin (left, with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra) will lead a number of works to remember Leonard Bernstein next year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • He conducted with his hands as well as his body and face.

Decades after his death, Leonard Bernstein may still be the most identifiable conductor in the public imagination - dramatic onstage, bold offstage and succeeding, unlike so many others, in making classical music accessible.

But though he hardly needs rescue from obscurity, the breadth of his work is rarely considered in its totality.

Ahead of next year's centennial of Bernstein's birth, the New York Philharmonic - where he was music director from 1958 to 1969 - is putting on a wide-ranging festival that explores the man as a composer, conductor and public figure.

The event will, of course, include West Side Story, Bernstein's Broadway musical whose tunes have entered the American popular songbook.

But the Philharmonic, bringing in star conductors and soloists, is also showcasing his concert works, including all three of his symphonies.

American violinist Joshua Bell, who is performing Bernstein's philosophical Serenade, described the conductor as a "musical god" who became one of the first American classical musicians to win respect in Europe.

Bernstein as a conductor was "incredibly demonstrative and emotional in a way that had not been seen before, but also very honest and never pretentious", he noted.

The festival, which runs until Nov 14, comes with an exhibition on Bernstein, who died in 1990 at 72.

For many in the 1960s, Massachusetts-born Bernstein became the quintessential New Yorker - and he used his platform for political advocacy, notably by championing racial equality.

Leonard Slatkin, one of the conductor's proteges, will lead a number of works, including Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony, a meditation based on the Hebrew prayer for the dead.

Slatkin - who is music director of both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre National de Lyon - said, for successful American conductors, Bernstein was "our spiritual father".

Slatkin said Bernstein also broke new ground with his public prominence. As television became universal, Bernstein seized on the small screen and his own fiery personality to bring classical music to a nationwide audience.

"If you watched a video of him conducting and you took the sound out, you would know in five seconds which piece he was conducting," Slatkin said.

"He had this rare ability to show the music through his gestures, body language and face."

Bernstein stands out as a composer for the range of his influences, unafraid of weaving in jazz and popular music even as he remained anchored in the classical world.

If Bernstein were around today, Slatkin has no doubt the conductor would be just as prominent.

"He would be all over the Internet, you just know it," he said with a laugh.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'Bernstein lives on through his music'. Print Edition | Subscribe