The legacy of Leonard Bernstein

As the Southbank Centre prepares to celebrate the work of Leonard Bernstein, Boyd Tonkin reflects on the impression left by the composer – and recalls a memorable encounter with the great man himself

In spite of the endless weekends and evenings lost to a punishing rehearsal schedule, to be a young singer with the Finchley Children's Music Group in the later 1960s had compensations closed to friends whose after-school activities only meant the Cubs. There were recording sessions at the EMI studios in Abbey Road when a glimpse of the Beatles in the canteen always felt possible. Sadly, it never happened to me.

Then came the televised concert of a mammoth choral work at the Royal Albert Hall. During rehearsals, the hyperactive conductor on the podium singled out the children's choir from the vocal ranks and told us that we sounded fine. That compliment came, we knew even then, not just from one of the most famous musicians, but one of the most famous people on the planet at that time: Leonard Bernstein.

I still have "our" CBS recording (made slightly later) of Mahler's Eighth, the mighty "Symphony of a Thousand", and flatter myself that it stands up pretty well. A few days ago, I learned from Humphrey Burton – the BBC's former head of music and arts, who directed that and many other Bernstein concerts for TV or film, and later wrote the finest biography of his friend and colleague – that Lenny had his doubts not about us kids, but about the ladies' voices in the "Thousand". He thought them under-powered, and so "We scoured London for every available professional singer to strengthen the choir." Bernstein, like Mahler, never did anything by halves.

Over decades the composer of (among much else) West Side Story and Candide, On the Town and Kaddish, never lost his faith in Mahler. He lent his celebrity as a conductor to a concert-by-concert, disc-by-disc campaign to cement Mahler's music – to many conservative ears until the 1960s, as vulgar, mixed-up and unsettling as Bernstein's own – at the heart of the classical repertoire. Like many other ventures in the career of this all-round musician, educator and enabler who straddled Broadway and Salzburg, concert hall and TV studio, the worlds of Frank Sinatra and Igor Stravinsky, Bernstein's promotion succeeded. So well, indeed, that it's now too easy to forget his starring role in several revolutions in musical taste.

Beginning this Sunday and lasting until next July, a 30-event season at the Southbank Centre will remember and celebrate his legacy. The Bernstein Project also aims to carry on his work as inspirer and communicator. A (literally) all-singing, all-dancing programme of concerts, workshops, films and discussions will seek to recapture his spirit of outreach and enthusiasm. Marin Alsop, the American conductor and former pupil of Bernstein who directs the season, comments that "The boundaries are much less defined today. Maybe it would have happened anyway – but it always takes trailblazers, and he was clearly ahead of his time."

From Simon Rattle to Gustavo Dudamel (who conducts an ecstatic "Mambo" from West Side Story as an encore with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra), every charismatic populariser of the classical tradition – and every open-minded bridge-builder between the classics, jazz and pop – has followed the Bernstein beat. From the late Fifties to the early Seventies, his Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic – his institutional home at the peak of his fame – turned a new mass television audience on to music.

They relished the star's approachable warmth, streetwise humour and jack-in-the-box energy. But with this flamboyance went a craft and control derived from apprenticeships to maestros such as Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky. "What Bernstein had in spades was not only the physicality," recalls Burton, "but the exact understanding of what was happening in the score at every point in the music." He communicated this grasp like no musician before, and few since. In the 1950s, his "Omnibus" shows for CBS had set the bar high for every future music documentary. "It's remarkable how intellectually challenging they were," says Burton, "at a time when TV was in its infancy."

On a more personal plane, Marin Alsop remembers an invigorating teacher at the annual Tanglewood summer school and later one who was "generous with his praise, his criticism, his hugs – he was completely devoted." As his pupil, "I couldn't be nervous because it was almost as if everyone else faded into the background. He was so focused on me."

The Southbank season will culminate next July with two performances, their ranks swollen by youth and community musicians, of Mass. In this ecumenical extravaganza from 1971, Bernstein not only perms sacred formats with musical numbers (his lyricist was Stephen Schwartz, who wrote Godspell), he runs the gamut of the era's pop genres, from soul to an Elvis-style song. At the time, this fashion-conscious razzmatazz epitomised for critics his enslavement to every passing fad. The year before, Tom Wolfe had written his devastating satirical essay "Radical Chic" about the Bernsteins' glitzy Manhattan party in support of the militant Black Panthers.

But as early as 1944, the 25-year-old prodigy had not only premiered a serious first symphony ("Jeremiah") on the Biblical themes that always preoccupied him. As a sign of familiarity with both sides of the musical street, he also wrote the jazz-based score for Jerome Robbins' ballet, Fancy Free. That work would become the smash hit On the Town. In the move from Broadway to Hollywood, much fine Bernstein music was lost along the way – just as some of his score for Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront expired on the cutting-room floor.

Alsop, like Burton, thinks that Mass has shown it can outlive its post-Woodstock, anti-Vietnam War, counter-culture moment. She feels that the span of time since its creator's death (in 1990) lets us hear his music as a whole afresh, free of the controversies that dogged his career. "It takes the fact that Bernstein has been gone for a while for people to be able to assess the work without the shadow of the person looming over it," she says. For Burton, Mass "has improved with age". It endures as "the perfect community piece" from a composer whose abiding sense of theatre and urge to engage with non-professionals drove much of his most distinguished work.

The Bernstein shadow still stretches a long way. Born to a Russian Jewish migrant family in Massachusetts in 1918, the prodigally gifted pianist, conductor and composer stormed every citadel of American and European musical life – but still cultivated his outsider status. Amazingly, as late as 1957 – when West Side Story opened on Broadway to take its place as one of the best-loved pieces in the music-theatre canon – Bernstein became the first-ever American-born director of the New York Philharmonic. At the Phil he worked with, then replaced, Dimitri Mitropoulos, one of the three mentors whom Bernstein had first met as a Harvard student in 1937: the others were the composer Aaron Copland, and the lyricist Adolph Green.

Both Copland and Mitropoulos were gay. Bernstein's sexuality – as a family man devoted to his Chilean wife, Felicia, and their three children, who nonetheless enjoyed many, mostly casual, same-sex encounters – can still add scandal to his legend. For Burton, "he kept his gay alternative life within proportion until the decade of coming out, the 1970s – with disastrous consequences". In July 1976, Bernstein left Felicia to live briefly in California with an assistant.

Soon enough he returned home, but discreet self-indulgence had become public proclamation. Within two years, Felicia – a heavy smoker, like her husband – had died of lung cancer. Burton reports that although "There's no known mechanism by which cancer can be caused by unhappiness," still Bernstein "carried the guilt of having hastened his wife's very early death, aged 53."

His final decade saw a rising reputation for wayward behaviour tarnish the Bernstein name with musical insiders. Yet his public profile stayed as high as ever – right up to the definitive London version of his great satire Candide in 1989, and the rousing concerts in Berlin that marked the fall of the Wall. Tales of eccentricity and even drunkenness date from this time, but Burton says that "I never had to suffer any kind of cancellation because of his so-called lack of discipline".

Burton's work on the Southbank events – where he will curate a programme of Bernstein films – has "confirmed me in my love and admiration, and in my belief that he's a very important figure." Bernstein didn't want, he notes, "to be remembered as the man who wrote West Side Story" – although dance classes and song sessions will make use of the evergreen popularity of his and lyricist Stephen Sondheim's tenement take on Romeo and Juliet.

Instead, Burton pays tribute to "the man who gave us excitement in the concert hall and sent us out happy. You leave most of his pieces with a glimmer of hope." As for Alsop, she hopes that the project will "extend and fulfil his own broader mission to give everyone access to an art form that every human being deserves to experience". Bernstein, as I grasped when the ultimate celebrity maestro bothered to show respect to a bunch of overawed kids at the Royal Albert Hall, knew how to find a place for everyone in music – somehow, some day, somewhere.

The Bernstein Project begins on Sunday 20 September with 'Mass Gathering' at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 ( )

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