Leonard Bernstein: The Greatest Showman

Leonard Bernstein conducting a rehearsal in one of the Tanglewood barns, c. 1971

I decided during my first week of college classes at Brandeis University to shop a class called “Leonard Bernstein: Composer, Conductor, Educator, and Humanitarian” and my first thought was “Oh boy”. Having a twin brother as a serious pianist makes you lose interest in classical music real fast. In every bedroom I was hearing Copland, Bach, or Gershwin; I couldn’t escape it. I was listening to classical music all the time, I quickly became unappreciative of the style’s beauty and detail – I just wanted the piece to end. Therefore, while I didn’t know a lot about who Leonard Bernstein was when I decided to try the class out, I was hesitant since I knew it would entail listening to classical music at some point or another. I contemplated; was the class going to be as boring as my brother’s playing? However, after two months of the class, I can’t believe I was ever skeptical. I am in awe of Bernstein. He was a musical genius who created masterpieces and revolutionized American classical music. Above all though, the most inspiring part about him is, he was a natural entertainer.

If you have ever seen Leonard Bernstein conduct, you know exactly what I mean when I say that you are automatically drawn to him when he is on stage. Bernstein has such a contagious energy and enthusiasm to him. Take one of his performances of the Candide Overture. This piece was conducted at the London Symphony Orchestra on December 13th, 1989 and it was spectacular. When you watch him you can’t help but smile. He never stops moving – up and down, right and left – his puckered lips are adorable, and his overall happiness throughout the entire performance is apparent and truly exemplifies his passion for the arts. Additionally, it is clear that he is meticulous about every instrument and note played – both the way he bounces and who he pays attention to with each sound change. You only have to take a few moments to watch him closely to realize he is affected by every note played. How incredible! I’m not the only one who idolizes him. New York Times writer Anthony Tommasini described him as the “the most influential American maestro of the 20th century” and stated that, “his unabashedly theatrical podium persona was thrilling. There was something feisty and American about it”. Additionally, Jennie Shames, a violinist of the Boston Symphony, also praised him, “For all of us that worked with him, when I ask any one of them who is the greatest conductor you ever played with, without skipping a beat we all say Leonard Bernstein”.(1)(2)

Bernstein conducting in Carnegie Hall, c.1946
Leonard Bernstein rehearsing at the Vienna Philharmonic in 1984

Bernstein didn’t even need all his body motion to draw the audience in or conduct his orchestra; his facial expressions were more than enough. In one piece at the Vienna Philharmonic, Bernstein didn’t use either his hands or baton to conduct Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 – he used only his eyebrows! (3) Not only does this technique illustrate how talented of a conductor he was, the choice demonstrates how much Bernstein cared about his musicians. He wanted them to shine. He didn’t always want to spazz out and detract from the players while they were all on stage. He trusted them. Orin O’Brien, one of the bassist of the New York Philharmonic, explained it perfectly, “He was very free with his motions because he knew the orchestra knew the piece, and knew he could be relaxed and phrase differently each night if he felt like it. He didn’t feel he needed to beat out the time.” (4)

Some of his conductor inspirations included Serge Koussevitzky and Dimitri Metropolis who both conducted with passion, large gestures, and internal rhythm. (5) He also admired Hungarian opera and symphonic music conductor Fritz Reiner for his love of detail in every piece played. (6) All three of them molded him into the pristine conductor that he was.

Not surprisingly, not everybody was a fan of Bernstein’s conducting style, including Bernstein! He once told his assistant John Mauceri that he hated the way he looked when he conducted, “but when I do it I get the sound I want”. (7) Mauceri added that french conductor Pierre Monteux also criticized Bernstein’s conducting style, “I’ve yet to have anyone demonstrate that an orchestra plays louder because you jump higher”.

Bernstein was not only great at directing the musicians, he was also great with the audience. He loved to tell jokes in between songs and when he got onto stage he always made sure to “bow, shake hands with the orchestra’s leader, and wait, wait for the audience to be paying attention”. (8) I wish I could have seen him live.

Until his death in 1990, Leonard Bernstein never ceased to be in the spotlight. He swept millions of people away with not only his music, but his presence and he created symphonies and songs that will be cherished forever. He may have been too much for some people, but in my eyes, he was the greatest showman.


Work Cited List

(1) Tommasini, Anthony. “In Praise of Bernstein as Conductor: Movement That Mesmerized.” The New York Times, August 23, 2018, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/23/arts/music/leonard-bernstein-conductor.html.

(2) Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.” The New York Times, August 23, 2018, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/23/arts/music/leonard-bernstein-centennial-boston-symphony-tanglewood.html.

(3) “Watch Leonard Bernstein Conduct an Orchestra Using Only His EYEBROWS – Classic FM.” Accessed October 13, 2018. https://www.classicfm.com/composers/bernstein-l/guides/conduct-with-eyebrows/.

(4) Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”

(5) “Leonard Bernstein, A Total Embrace of Music, Classical Notes, Peter Gutmann.” Accessed October 13, 2018. http://www.classicalnotes.net/features/bernstein.html.

(6) “Bernstein: Conducting as a Conductor Conducts.” Accessed October 13, 2018. https://www.curtis.edu/news/bernstein-conducting-as-a-conductor-conducts/.

(7) Tilden, Interviews by Imogen, and Fiona Maddocks. “‘He Was High-Brow, Low-Brow, Every-Brow!’ – the Genius of Leonard Bernstein.” The Guardian, July 12, 2018, sec. Music. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/12/leonard-bernstein-composer-conductor-inspiration-genius-proms.

(8) Tilden, Interviews by Imogen, and Fiona Maddocks. “‘He Was High-Brow, Low-Brow, Every-Brow!’

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