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No composer exemplifies 20th-century American symphonic music better than Leonard Bernstein, who, had he not passed in 1990, would be celebrating his 100th birthday Aug. 25. To mark the occasion, cultural institutions worldwide are planning celebrations, including events at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, as well as a concert by the L.A. Phil conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at the David Geffen Theater in New York.
“I quote this often times in my concert, because it’s such a profound statement and it says so much about who he was,” Kristin Chenoweth, who often sings songs by Bernstein, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The quote goes like, ‘Our greatest revenge to violence is making the most beautiful music.’ He understood what it was to leave behind the world a better place than how he found it, with his Young People’s Concerts and the way he viewed his mentorship.”
For a better understanding of the man behind the music, L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center’s Leonard Bernstein at 100, through Sept. 2, offers a look at some of the artifacts that went into shaping the scores for On the Waterfront, Candide, West Side Story and the multitude of melodies that made up the maestro’s oeuvre. Highlights include:
West Side Story The desk Bernstein used to compose the score is on display, as are Stephen Sondheim’s handwritten lyrics to “Maria” and score sheets from “America” and “Tonight,” just a few of the many hits the groundbreaking musical spawned. “We have two different worlds coming together, which he did so beautifully, and perhaps one of the best overtures, beside Candide, that he ever wrote, or was ever written,” says Chenoweth, who was in an Oklahoma CIty University production of the musical, starring as Velma. The winner of 10 Oscars, including best picture, West Side Story was remounted in 2009, with added Spanish lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and will be getting a Hollywood reboot with Steven Spielberg directing a book by Tony Kushner.
On the Waterfront The Oscar nomination plaque for a score that typifies the brassy dissonance of 1950s movie music, elevating this gritty film noir starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint to eight Oscar wins, including best picture.
Candide The original Broadway poster, set and costume sketches, as well as a rosewood writing box given to Bernstein by collaborator Lillian Hellman on this troubled musical/opera based on the 18-century novella by French philosopher Voltaire. Written around the same time as West Side Story, Candide is a groundbreaking mash-up of musical styles that struggled to find an audience despite continuous tweaking by Bernstein over the years. Recent productions include last January’s staging by the L.A. Opera, including Kelsey Grammer in his opera debut.
“It is operetta at its highest level,” says Chenoweth, who played Cunegonde in 2005 concert performance of Candide with the New York Phil. “I think it is his best work. With Lillian Hellman and Bernstein matching up, you cannot miss. And he certainly did not miss. I think the piece is ahead of its time.”
Wonderful Town The best new musical award from 1953 New York Drama Critics Circle, as well as the 10k Gold Donaldson Award for this musical about two sisters who arrive in New York with dreams of making it in showbiz. The show took six Tony Awards in 1953, as well as a best choreography Tony for the 2003 revival.
Grammy Awards Five trophies out of his 16 wins in 39 nominations, including his Recording Academy™ lifetime achievement award. His impressive history with the Recording Academy dates back to his first nomination at the first ever Grammy Awards ceremony in 1961, when he received a nomination for best classical performance for a recording of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
Baton and Podium Tools of the maestro include one of his batons that was gifted to conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who subsequently broke it during a performance. Included is a video of Dudamel recalling the episode. In 2016, Dudamel conducted a darker operatic version of West Side Story in Salzburg, Austria, to lukewarm reviews.
Other items include Bernstein’s childhood piano, furnishings from his Connecticut studio, a report card and papers from his undergraduate years at Harvard, a costume from the first production of his “Mass,” and posters testifying to his political activism — one by artist Peter Max for the 1980 Democratic National Convention, inscribed by U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy.
“The one sad moment in my life is that I never got to meet him,” muses Chenoweth. “I know that Bernstein looks down on us and is watching over us all, especially artists, and he’s saying you’re doing good, keep doing good.”
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