Bernstein at Tanglewood: Conducting
Coming up more about Bernstein’s early years in Massachusetts and his final concert at Tanglewood which his brother described as, 'Lenny coming home to die.'

Bernstein and Tanglewood; the two names are quite nearly synonymous.  Throughout Bernstein’s great and varied life work, one of the few constants was his involvement with the Tanglewood Institute.  His operas, Broadway shows, symphonies, concerts and controversies seldom stopped him from spending time at Tanglewood during Berkshire summers.  The joy that Bernstein experienced while conducting and spending time in Tanglewood was unbounded. His daughter, Jamie Bernstein, was once quoted as saying “Every time he (Bernstein) went up there (to Tanglewood) it was like he would be rejuvenated. He would turn into a kid again”(1).  Bernstein’s connection to Tanglewood could nearly be described as spiritual; the very first time he led a orchestra as a symphonic conductor was at Tanglewood. He conducted the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra in Randall Thompson’s Symphony No. 2, with the composer himself in the audience (2).  From his very first summer spent in Berkshire, under the guidance the of Koussevitzky, he was “hooked.” He described his time spent in summer study there as “the happiest and most productive of my life.” At Tanglewood, Bernstein’s conducting was truly put to the test; his extensive Tanglewood discography can account for that.  Over the rapturous summers spent in the Berkshires, he conducted Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes & many more. He held audiences spellbound and captured student musicians at the flick of his baton. In my opinion, it was only fitting that he spent the last years of his life conducting and bringing joy at Tanglewood – the place that brought him such rapture .  His final concert at Tanglewood was fittingly described by Bernstein’s brother as, “Lenny coming home to die.”

Bernstein and Koussevitzky
“For your creative energy, your instinct for truth, your incredible incorporation of teacher and artist, I give humble thanks. Seeing in you my own concepts matured is a challenge to me which I hope to fulfill in your great spirit.” - Bernstein in a Letter to Koussevitzky (2)

Koussevitzky imparted great musical and conducting knowledge onto the impressionable, young Bernstein.  Not only did Koussevitzky teach Bernstein to study each piece with passion and a singularity of mind, but Koussevitzky also stressed the importance of central themes, or lines, to Bernstein.  Bernstein’s dedication to central lines would propel him as a conductor for years into the future. Koussevitzky taught his young assistant to become absorbed by each work: taking each and every individual part to heart – though not to the same extent as Fritz Reiner.  In the summer of 1942, Bernstein played the bass drum in the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Leningrad during which Koussevitzky conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.  Along with knowledge of musical material, Bernstein gained invaluable experience conducting on the stand.  In these formative years, under Koussevitzky’s watchful eye, Bernstein began to funnel his passion towards conducting into a sort of performance art.  Bernstein also began to incorporate large, thematic, gestures into his conducting. From Koussevitzky, the young Bernstein learned to mark the inner beats and to bring out counter-melodies throughout the orchestra.  However, their relationship was not without creative conflict. Koussevitzky wished to tamper Bernstein’s ego and said he ought to be an “interpreter of great musical works,” discouraging Bernstein from playing his own works as a conductor.  Still, Koussevitzky predicted that Bernstein would become the greatest conductor of all time, and their time spent at Tanglewood was truly invaluable.

“It was a renaissance for me - a rehabilitation of the twisted and undefined weltanschauung with which I came to you.” -Bernstein

Conducting Analysis

For this section of the blogpost, I have chosen to observe Bernstein’s conducting in action.   After all, in the public mind, the conductor is the living embodiment of musical power – holding a dozens of musicians under perfect control and unleashing the force of the full orchestra with mere gesture. Bernstein’s conducting, at Tanglewood, is excellent enough that any number of pieces could suffice .  However, this recording of Bernstein conducting Tchaikovsky’s 5th, is something special. At the beginning of the movement, Bernstein motions with great sweeping gestures to the strings and at times drops the baton practically to his knees when low voices takes up melody.  The inner beats are alluded to; melodies and counterpoints are highlighted with the flick of a baton. The emotion Bernstein feels in concert is clearly wrought upon his face and choreographed by his body. A discourse between conductor and conducted remains constant as Bernstein encourages and cues the seated players; every player maintains eye contact with Bernstein.  The result is truly compelling. The strings and woodwinds unite as a single and smooth voice. The brass stings in the proper places, and even though Bernstein may have become more subdued in his later years, the orchestra and their conductor bring new vitality to the symphony. In this performance, the fruits of Bernstein’s long years of labor become evident. In his element at his beloved Tanglewood, he holds perfect control over the orchestra: harnessing the techniques learned from Koussevitzky many summers ago as an assistant conductor.

August 19th, 1990

Bernstein led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, in what would be his final concert. Carl St. Clair conducted the BSO first in Bright Sheng’s orchestral transcription of Bernstein’s “Arias and Barcarolles”, and Bernstein then conducted Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.  He suffered a coughing fit during the third movement of the Beethoven symphony, but continued to conduct the piece until its conclusion, leaving the stage during a standing ovation



“Better still was the Beethoven. It was done in Mr. Bernstein's characteristic mature style, meaning slower and heavier than he used to perform the Viennese classics. That robbed the score, the last movement especially, of some excitement. But it lent the proceedings a real grandeur, and the flowing Allegretto second movement was particularly gorgeous, with touch after instrumental touch striking home with the force of revelation.” - NY TIMES August 21, 1990 (4)


To conclude… Bernstein Shared a Special Connection with Tanglewood, and his years there saw him grow into, reputedly, the best conductor of all time.

Work Cited

(1) “Alex and Jamie Bernstein | Here’s the Thing.” WNYC Studios, 24 Dec. 2012,
(2) “Tanglewood Background.” Tanglewood | Educator | About | Leonard Bernstein,
(3) Alsop, Marin. “Leonard Bernstein, the Conductor.” Conductor | About | Leonard Bernstein,
(4) JOHN ROCKWELL, Special to The New York Times. “Review/Music; Bernstein Leads His Annual Tanglewood Concert.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 1990,
(5) Ross, Daniel. “Leonard Bernstein Explains Beautifully and Eloquently Exactly What a Conductor Does.” Classic FM, 17 May 2016,


Conducting 101: Conducting like Bernstein

Before beginning to dissect Bernstein’s scores and conducting patterns, let’s take a look at basics in conducting.  


As you can tell from the picture on the left, each time signature gets a particular conducting pattern. Each first beat will get the downbeat (your hand will go in a downward motion). These conducting patterns are only three of the many different patterns out there. There are many more time signatures that each get their own conducting pattern.

Bernstein composed, conducted, and educated a wide audience and had a huge impact on music in America. He was a very expressive and emotive conductor who entertained so many audiences for many years. 

Let’s learn how to conduct some of his pieces: 

1) ” A Simple Song” – MASS 

Sheet music from Bernstein’s “A Simple Song” from his MASS

The beginning of this song is conducted in cut time, but it does eventually
make its way to common time- conducted in 4/4. This time signature is one of the most common, if not THE most common, time signature. In simple terms, every quarter note gets one count in each measure. (In this time signature, 4 quarter notes makes 1 whole measure). It is not so surprising that a name with such title is in such a simple time signature.  Try listening to this song and feeling the pulse of the rhythm. (1)

2) “I Feel Pretty” – West Side Story 

Sheet music from Bernstein’s “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story

This song is a bit more complex than the first. “I Feel Pretty” is in 3/4. The conducting pattern will look like the first pattern on the chart above. This time signature consists of 3 quarter notes per measure. A waltz will also be in 3/4. This time signature may make some feel more inclined to sway or dance as opposed to marching or walking like in a 4/4 time signature.  (2) 



3) ” America” – West Side Story 

Sheet music from Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story

Lastly, this song is conducted in 6/8. This time signature also allows for a swaying motion. The time signature also helps push this specific song towards a very uplifting happy feel. It’s easy to imagine how into this piece Bernstein would be as he conducted during concerts. Try conducting 6/8 with the help of the diagram in the picture above. (3)










Bernstein at Brandeis: A Conductor’s Premiere Takes Center Stage

By Liza M.

“This is a moment of inquiry for the whole world: a moment when civilization looks at itself appraisingly, seeking a key to the future.”

— Leonard Bernstein, Inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts, Brandeis University, 1952.

Leonard Bernstein conducting a rehearsal for the “Trouble in Tahiti” premiere at Brandeis University in 1952.

Smacked in between his other three most famous works, On the Town, Candide, and West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti was composed in 1951, a composition he first began during his honeymoon. This 45 minute, one-act opera immediately begins with the repetition of the phrase, “the little white house,” set throughout the prelude. Catchy as ever, the opening trio (the narrators of this drama) sings in close harmonies, setting the perfect scene of an almost idealistic suburban town with nuclear families and weather that’s always pleasant. Above all, people are happy, hustling and bustling and enjoying life, including everything from the mundane to the extraordinary. It’s the 1950s, but as the jazzy beats dwindle away from the opener and the music changes its theme and course as the first scene begins, the audience soon starts to realize that such a utopia is not everyone’s reality. Cut to Sam and Dinah, the two main characters in this story; they’re married with a child, but their life is far from perfection as they suffer through the trials and tribulations of marriage, as well as dissatisfaction with each other, themselves, and their environment. Audience members experience an intimate day-in-the-life of the family, which begins with an argument over the breakfast table, followed by Dinah’s garden day dreams, Sam’s naughty indiscretions, awkward street run-ins, personal reflections about parenthood, and a mention of a movie recently released titled Trouble in Tahiti. Ultimately, the couple may or may not be able to overcome the struggles of married life, but the audience is left to believe that regardless of whether the couple chooses to stay together or not, Sam and Dinah have a long road to personal recovery ahead of them. 

Leonard Bernstein (right) in front of the stage set for the “Trouble in Tahiti” premiere.

But Bernstein’s role as Trouble in Tahiti’s composer extends far past his composition abilities. Bernstein first premiered Trouble in Tahiti at Brandeis University in June of 1952 for an audience of close to 3,000 people. At the time, Bernstein was on faculty at Brandeis serving in the music department, a job that began in 1951 and would continue through 1956. It was in 1952, however, that Bernstein initiated the Festival of the Creative Arts (a festival that still exists today), which was the setting for Trouble in Tahiti’s premiere at 11:00 p.m., as an all-day symposium had gone way over schedule. Along with a weak amplification system, the stage outdoors being just barely built, and pressure from his fellow Brandeis colleague Irving Fine to finish the opera just in time for the festival’s commencement, Bernstein felt that his newest composition wasn’t ready to his satisfaction for the performance, and he ended up deciding to rewrite the final scene for the next showing he would have later on that summer at Tanglewood. 

A page from the inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts brochure from June 12, 1952.

As a conductor, part of Bernstein’s job was to educate the public by introducing new types of music and probing interesting concepts for deeper reflection. Trouble in Tahiti brings about candid new ideas and critiques of love, materialism, and loneliness during a post-war era, concealed ostensibly by a perfect suburban world and unrealistic ideals of happiness. Each scene evokes different emotions from the audience as the music stylistically changes; Bernstein challenges his audience to find reasons to believe in the imperfections of the characters, to find them relatable, or to feel so far removed from them that you find yourself questioning your own life and life choices. 

The front of the inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts brochure from June 12, 1952.


  • A production of Trouble in Tahiti produced by Opera North in August, 2018.
  • [ ] A scan of the complete brochure from the Inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts.

Bernstein’s Rise to Fame as a Conductor

On November 14th, 1943, Leonard Bernstein’s life as a conductor would change forever, when he got the last minute opportunity to sub for a sick Bruno Walter. But what about him led to his success? Was it the people he met, or was it his innate character traits? I believe it was a combination of both, and would like to explore the process that led to Bernstein’s fame alongside the character traits that he had throughout this process.

Bernstein Conducting

Bernstein’s conducting journey started at the early age of 20, when Bernstein met Dimitri Mitropoulos who inspired him to take up conducting, in addition to composing. Not long after, Bernstein began his studies in conducting at the Curtis Institute where he studied with Fritz Reiner, who along with Bernstein’s other mentor, Aaron Copland, encouraged him to introduce himself to the then conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky was impressed by Bernstein, and this connection would earn Bernstein conducting lessons at the Tanglewood Music Center while Bernstein was still in his early twenties.

Serge Koussevitzky clasps hands with Bernstein during a curtain call at Tanglewood

Not in small part due to Bernstein’s mentors, Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos, and Copland when it was time for Arthur Rodzinski, musical director of the New York Philharmonic, to chose an assistant conductor for the orchestra, Bernstein was the one who was chosen. (1). “It was Nov. 14, 1943, when Leonard Bernstein, then 25, was summoned to conduct the New York Philharmonic because Bruno Walter, the guest conductor, had fallen sick.”(2). This captivating performance, which was live-broadcasted, was a key event that led to continued fame for the rest of his life.

Although these connections and events were a key part of what led to his eventual success and fame, what innate characteristics of him as a conductor and person contributed to getting these connections in the first place, and ultimately to his fame?

One of the first things one will notice when watching a video of Bernstein conducting is his expressiveness. Menahem Breuer, former concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra recalled of her time playing under Leonard Bernstein, “It was never for show although he was dancing on the podium. It was all emotional and sincere, music was pouring out of his body.” (3). This characteristic was undoubtedly part of what made Bernstein such a compelling conductor.

Another characteristic that I believe led to Bernstein’s success was his love of teaching. Bernstein was of course known as an educator in many ways but what is notable is that his love of teaching continued while he was conducting as well. A musician who played under Bernstein recalled a time when a substitute harpist in one of his orchestras needed help with their part, “Our harpist got sick, I think in Venice. The substitute harpist had never played the Mahler Fifth in rehearsal. So there she was, shivering by her harp, and Lenny looked over and saw she needed clear beats. So he laid out every single note in the slow movement for her. That entire movement, he conducted it just so she could be absolutely clear of all the triplets and subdivided rhythms, which are very difficult. He knew she needed him.” (4). Bernstein also loved teaching the orchestra as a whole. Marin Aslop stated, “I was always delighted when he would stop a rehearsal and say “must I tell you the story of this Haydn Symphony?” only to have 70 musicians magically turn into 4 year olds with that sparkle of anticipation in their eyes that says “yes, please tell us that story!” (5).

A final key characteristic that I believe was crucial to Bernstein’s success as a conductor was his passion. Bernstein’s son, Alexander Bernstein, stated, “When he studied a score his concentration was total, so that all of my fiddling around with his trinkets and jumping, Robin Hood-like, from chair to couch didn’t even faze him” (6). Lawrence Wolfe, bassist of the Boston Symphony, recalled, “ One time things weren’t going all that well. It wasn’t gelling, and it seemed there was a discrepancy between his score and the parts onstage. He took the score and slammed it down, and stomped offstage. Someone lit a cigarette, put it in his mouth; someone handed him a drink. The personnel manager said, “We’re going to take a break now.” About 20 minutes later, the break was over, and Lenny was fine, as if nothing had ever happened”( 7). Although his passion may have sometimes come out in the form of anger or irritation with the orchestra, whether Bernstein cared or not was never in question to the musicians who played under him.

When combining Bernstein’s expressiveness, love for teaching, and passion, with the fact that Bernstein had mentors like Copland, Koussevitzky, and Reiner, and adding alittle bit of luck (becoming assistant conductor of the NY philharmonic at the right time), it becomes clear how Bernstein rose to fame so quickly at such a young age, and stayed famous to the point of his death and beyond.


Works Cited

  1. Seldes, Barry. Leonard Bernstein the Political Life of an American Musician. University of California Press, 2009.
  2. Brozan, Nadine. “CHRONICLE.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Nov. 1993,
  3. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Aug. 2018,
  4. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”
  5. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”
  6. Trott, Donald L., and Alexander Bernstein. “Leonard Bernstein Remembered: A Lecture/Interview with His Son, Alexander.” The Choral Journal, vol. 34, no. 4, 1993, pp. 9–13. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  7. Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.”

Pictures and Videos




A Tale of Critique and Chutzpah: Leonard Bernstein as a Conductor


By Mollie Goldfarb

Classical music was commonly danced and listened to in the Jewish shtetl, otherwise known as Brooklyn in the 1930s. My grandparents’, Bubbe and Opa, respective family living rooms were filled with the sounds of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven when they practically lived down the block from one another (before they even knew the other existed and way before their first date). Their teenage memories consist of the sweet sounds of classical music, none of that rebel rousing jazz music of the 1930s. Obviously, it only made sense their honeymoon include a stop at Tanglewood, the premier spot for classical music during the beautiful, breezy summer months in the Berkshire Mountains.


Bubbe & Opa. Tanglewood – Summer 1955.


Bernstein was revered as a God in the heavenly tree-lined landscape of Tanglewood, according to his son Alexander: “The entire exertion of the place revolved around him–his work, his needs–and everyone was happy to oblige.” (1) However, his relationship with the NY Philharmonic from 1958 – 1990 was much more tempestuous compared to his consecutive teaching summers spent at Tanglewood. Although many music enthusiasts were discontent with his unmistakable style, some orchestra members applauded Bernstein’s dynamic behavior and mannerisms. He adamantly rejected the stuffy, unrelatable pretenses of classical music, specifically because the NY Philharmonic was declining in popularity and lacked sufficient energy to interest its patrons or compete with the more “prestigious” symphonies in Boston & Philadelphia. For example, the late Walter Botti, a New York Philharmonic bass player from 1952 to 2002, believed his charisma transformed the orchestra: “Lenny loved everybody and he wanted to be loved by everybody, but music came first. He pushed the Orchestra, but he never, never embarrassed anybody or put people on the spot. He was a real mensch.” (2) He constantly nudged the musicians to their physical and emotional limits by demanding long-hours and intense rehearsals, as he tried to solve the oxymoron of “American classical music.” (3) During this time, classical music was rooted in Eurocentric ideals and principles but this did not discourage or halt Bernstein in his tracks to Americanize classical music; rather, he began to have wild dreams to conduct American canons distinct from the far-flung arrangements in Europe: “More than the Russian-born Koussevitzky, more than the English-born Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein tackled the oxymoron head-on.” (4) His programs consisted of an interesting mash-up between 19th-century romantic music and modern American works. To grasp the diversity of music during his time with the NY Philharmonic, his first subscription program included William Schuman’s American Festival Overture, Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. (5) Nevertheless, even though his position with the Philharmonic spanned over many years fraught with political turmoil and social revolution, his desire to conduct great American canons and regenerate American patriotism did not digress. However, his sense of urgency was sometimes overshadowed by his splashy behavior and presence onstage.

In his distinct quest to solve this oxymoron of American classical music, he faced many critiques from scholarly peers and longtime NY Philharmonic subscribers, such as my grandparents. His larger than life personality often frustrated many patrons; my grandparents always felt he would “eat up the applause” once onstage and even worse, distract from the music with dramatic theatrical mannerisms, “excessively swaying and stomping his foot to the music.” Patrons began to wonder, “Was the main attraction the man on the podium or the music he was conducting?” His overwhelming conducting style played to a specific audience while it simultaneously soured others opinion of him: “At his worst, Bernstein was the Barbra Streisand of conductors, an ego-filled blimp who used the classics as a backdrop for his dramatic posturing.” (6) His polarizing style was fervently felt throughout the audience, leaving those similar in opinion to my grandparents isolated and annoyed by his takeover and grand upheaval of classical conducting.

That Mahler feeling … Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1970. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Although his personal conducting style did not win over my grandparents’ hearts, his programs as a conductor drastically (consciously or subconsciously) altered their attitude towards American classical music–one of the most explicit and important goals in Bernstein’s professional career, specifically as a conductor. I recently asked my grandparents if they thought NY Philharmonic patrons of that era truly enjoyed his eccentric programs with an interesting Eurocentric and American mix. Their answer neatly sums up the long-lasting impact of Bernstein as a conductor and more or less, a revolutionary: “It is hard to say, as we do not have access to patron’s views…and do not remember if Bernstein introduced more modern American music…That is not to say he did or didn’t. We just do not remember. However, if you were to ask us today if we enjoy the aforementioned music the answer would be yes.”

  1. Donald L. Trott & Alexander Bernstein, “Leonard Bernstein Remembered: A Lecture/Interview with His Son, Alexander,” American Choral Directors Association, November 1993.
  2. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100,” The Weekly Standard, April 27, 2018,
  3. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100.”
  4. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100.”
  5. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100.”
  6. Terry Teachout, “How Good Was Leonard Bernstein?,” Commentary Magazine (blog), October 1, 1994,

Leonard Bernstein and My Family

As a junior on campus, I have heard his name countless times, and celebrated him. I realized that I did not know enough about such a character and endeavored to learn more. In order to gain a more personal idea of Leonard Bernstein, I decided to reach out to my aunt, Roz Castle, and dad, Barry Resnik, two very musical people, and find out what they remember of him.

LR: What do you know of Leonard Bernstein?

RC: Conductor, did my favorite west side story, nice Jewish boy from new York, always had these epic concerts and epic orchestrations. I remember seeing him on tv and I was just glued to the set. I saw him at Lincoln center, very Broadway

LR: What do you remember from when you were growing up and did his music have an effect on you?

RC: They went to a Saturday matinee a lot. Was a very huge Streisand fan so any of that musicals and movies got me. My parents always had the stereo going and we would hear him play. He could make something so small be so incredible. Musicals were huge at the time of growing up which was the mid 60s, before rock and roll. A lot of Jewish influence at the time and was very big in her house. You don’t sing to Leonard Bernstein, you sing to whoever’s singing, but you hear his orchestrations in your head.

West Side Story poster

LR: Did you ever listen to his music?

RC: West side story is the big one but I remember some of his album covers in my parents collections. I don’t remember much else because I wanted to hear the female artists, but he would make the voices that I loved become electric. It was what he did, not him specifically. He brought the ingredients together, but without him these things would never have come to be the way they did.

LR: What do you think keeps his music alive for so long?

RC: Great music is just great music. Time doesn’t mean anything to music.

Leonard Bernstein album cover- A Total Embrace: The Conductor

I loved her response to my last question and I still love it! It is so true. Bernstein made great music for everyone, no matter the class, to listen to.

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.

(2) Cooper, Michael. “Playing for Lenny: Musicians Recall the ‘Magical’ Bernstein.” The New York Times, August 23, 2018, sec. Arts.

(3) “Watch Leonard Bernstein Conduct an Orchestra Using Only His EYEBROWS – Classic FM.” Accessed October 13, 2018.

(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.

(6) “Bernstein: Conducting as a Conductor Conducts.” Accessed October 13, 2018.

(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.

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