By Dylan Hyman
Leonard Bernstein began his official New York Philharmonic career on January 2, 1958, but his ties to the organization go back to his famous conductorial debut in 1943, subbing in for then conductor Bruno Walter. Bernstein was to slowly take over Dimitri Mitropoulos over the 1958 – 1959 season. During his time at the New York Phil, Bernstein implemented new programs and ideology’s and was seen as the youthful revitalization the organization was in dire need of. Some of Bernstein’s new policies and programs included:
Preview concerts on Thursday nights
These were informal “dress rehearsals” that were in conjunction with the main weekend concerts. Bernstein would often talk through the program, explaining each piece in much greater detail than normal. No press was allowed on these nights to encourage pure enjoyment of the music itself. Bernstein and his orchestra also began to dress in nehru jackets instead the usual suit or tuxedo.
Spotlight concerts on Sundays
These concerts were opportunities for younger conductors and musicians to showcase their talent to a larger than average audience. This allowed young musicians to mature and grow and make their place in the competitive industry. As Americans would listen to their radio’s on Sunday afternoons, they would listen to up and coming musicians delight them with wonderful programs selected by Bernstein.
Bernstein would dedicate an entire season to a specific topic and then program pieces around that topic. He is seen as one of the innovators of thematic programming. His first season was dedicated to American music, fitting for the first popular American conductor.
Increased frequency of concerts
Bernstein introduced a freshness to the orchestra. He was much more physically able than Mitropoulos and was able to perform more nights in a row. This increased frequency resulted in the orchestra becoming more accessible to the public; there were more opportunities for the public to see the orchestra.
Bernstein made it a point to take this orchestra around the world more than ever before. The most famous international tour was to Soviet Russia in 1959. This was at a time of tense relations between capitalist America and communist Russia; the space race had recently begun and the nuclear threat was always imminent. Bernstein programmed pieces that the USSR did not allow (because of their western influence), pieces by Ives, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Though these pieces were older, they were brand new for Soviet Russia.
One piece, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, was performed in front of the composer. Bernstein invited the composer up to acknowledge him for his outstanding work that the Soviet nation deemed “too western.”
Bernstein also recognized Boris Pasternak, an author that was unable to receive his own Nobel Peace Prize because the Soviet Union forbid him to do so. Small acts like these helped break down the “iron curtain” of communism and spread the idea of American freedom. Bernstein, in an effort to educate the Russian people, spoke in Russian and talked about each piece in length before performing said piece. Though critics saw this as disrespectful, I believe it showed a virtue in Bernstien that continued with him in his other ventures.
Young People’s Concerts
Bernstein was an educator at heart and he sought to teach the American people more about the music they were listening to. This series of concerts/television programs were aimed mainly at kids, but were enjoyed by everybody. Fittingly, Bernstein’s first broadcast was titled “What Does Music Mean?” He discussed how we interpret music and what makes music so forceful as a sonic medium. Bernstein used these programs to not only connect with the youth of America, but with his own children. It is important to note that these programs eventually were syndicated across the world and had a huge influence on many young musicians.
Bernstein’s Sabbatical Conclusion
In 1962, Bernstein premiered his orchestra at the newly built Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. The debut was plagued with acoustical problems, which foreshadowed the next few years before his eventual sabbatical. Bernstein had two notable “flops” during his 1962 – 1964 stretch of time at the New York Phil: his concert with John Cage and his concert with Glenn Gould.
John Cage’s avant garde approach to music, improvisational orchestral pieces in this case, did not bode well with the audience; many of them getting up and leaving during the show. His concert with Glenn Gould sparked controversy as he jokingly asked the question “Who is the leader, the soloist or the conductor?”
Many saw this as Bernstein disrespecting Gould’s talent, but in fact, this was just playful humor between the two. In order to take a year off and focus on composing, Bernstein decided that from 1964 to 1965, he would take a sabbatical year. This sabbatical year saw Bernstein writing two pieces, Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms. He also took this time to begin building a relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic (which he later decided to conduct after the New York Phil).
Upon returning to his orchestra in 1966, Bernstein announced that 1969 would be his last year at the New York Phil. His conclusion after the sabbatical resulted in bernstein questioning symphonic form and the purpose of the orchestra itself.
His final years as director were critically praised but, it should also be noted that Bernstein experienced increased bouts of depression and emotional turmoil during these final years at the New York Phil. Kennedy’s assassination and his father’s death weighed on him but it was his lack of composing that I believe really got to him. Bernstein dropped composing because of a desire to simplify, but I believe this lead to more trouble in the end. Amicably leaving the New York Phil., Bernstein was eager to continue his musical career elsewhere, namely Vienna.
Dylan Hyman is a senior music major at Davidson College. He is a composer and producer specializing in electronic noise.
In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series.
Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.