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'Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music' Sheds Light On Composer’s Life

[Paul de Hueck/ courtesy the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. ]
Leonard Bernstein conducting

Leonard Bernstein was a towering figure in music during the 20 th century. He was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 until 1969. He was also a renowned composer, writing symphonies and operas, as well as a number of hit Broadway musicals, including “West Side Story.”   

The first large-scale museum exhibition to explore his life and work, “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” is now on view at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood.

The first object visitors encounter, a letter from a Virginia humanities teacher in the ‘70s, provides the exhibit’s central theme.

The letter sought “a central theme or purpose that she could use to help convey the beauty of the humanities to her students,” said exhibit curator Ivy Weingram. “Bernstein marked it up in red pencil and began to compose his reply at the bottom of his letter. He said the central theme to his body of original compositions was a search for the solution to the 20 th century crisis of faith. Living through World War II, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras, the Cold War, he really drew on those experiences, those tumultuous times in which he lived to negotiate the challenges of his day through his music.  He really thought about faith, not just in religious terms but also in terms of his faith in his fellow human beings and his government.  Every story we tell in the exhibition examines how he negotiated those tests of his faith and how music played a key role in that process.”

[Daniel Polletta/ideastream]

Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History created “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music” to coincide with the 100 th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth in 2018. Throughout the exhibit we see how important Bernstein’s Jewish identity was to him.

“Bernstein and his family attended a Conservative congregation in Boston. It’s in this synagogue as a young boy that Bernstein heard the music that shaped the kind of composer that he would become. The music he heard reappears in his symphonies and some of his works for Broadway, like the ram’s horn (shofar) that is blown on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is the first note in ‘West Side Story.’ It’s the note that signals that the Jets round up. In Biblical times, the sound of the shofar was also a call to war,” Weingram said.

[ Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music – “Samples of Faith” interactive installation, by Dome Collective]

There are approximately 100 photographs and artifacts in “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” including an annotated copy of  'Romeo and Juliet' that Bernstein used for developing  what he thought would be the ‘great American opera’ set on New York’s Lower East Side but instead  became “West Side Story.”

[Leonard Bernstein's annotated copy of "Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare. "Romeo and Juliet.  Boston: Ginn and Co., 1940. Ed. by George Kittredge./Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. By permission of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc]

“In the early ‘50s he collaborated again with Jerome Robbins, with whom he had worked on the ballet ‘Fancy Free,’ as well as  ‘On the Town’ for Broadway.  They reimagine ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a story of gang rivalry between Jews and Catholics at the convergence of Passover and Easter. They call this show ‘East Side Story.’ They think they have a hit and they work on this for a number of years, and they think they are drawing on the experience of the immigrant generation, which is really their parents’ generation,” Weingram said. “They sit with this ‘East Side Story' for a few years as both are working on other projects, but then they discover that the real contemporary story to be told as a re-telling of 'Romeo and Juliet' is about Puerto Rican gang rivalry that is taking place in major American cities like New York and Chicago. The lightbulb goes on and they realize that 'East Side Story' needs not to be about Jews and Catholics, which is another generation’s conflict, it needs to be about what it means to be an American today in the mid-1950s.”

 [Daniel Polletta/ideastream]

 Among the never-before-seen items that make up the exhibit is the composer’s piano, which he played in his youth.


[Daniel Polletta/ideastream]

"It’s unusual to have a Steinway piano in the Bernstein family. From a young age Bernstein signed with the Baldwin Piano Company and became a representative for them for the rest of his life. He appeared in Baldwin ads, and in turn Baldwin provided with a piano to play wherever he was in the world. As he was growing up he played the Steinway in our exhibition as he was learning piano from his instructor Helen Coates. This was Helen’s piano, which she later gave to him and it is still owned by his family,” Weingram said.

Weingram said as she curated the exhibit she came to see how the Passover Seder, which includes a series of questions asked during the ritual, is a metaphor for Bernstein himself.


[Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music/credit:Jessi Melcer]

“For him the essence of being a Jew and his Jewish identity was about asking questions. There is a grounding in faith in that identity, but it is also about how we see our world and respond to it through our own talents. This is the story about a man who used the talents to solve the challenges he faced in his life and ask all the right questions, knowing that there may never be a solution to the ‘crisis of faith.’ It is about the journey, not the end,” Weingram said.

“Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music” is on view at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage until March 1, 2020.