The following blog post was written by Daniel Walshaw, Music Division.
Wild, passionate, perspiring, and, above all, human – words not typically associated with a man clad in a tuxedo performing great works of the classical repertoire. However, it is nearly impossible to describe the extroverted music-making of Leonard Bernstein without using at least one of these words and, thanks to the great master, they also help to define the American concert experience. Admittedly, I am far too young to have any real-time memorable experience of the maestro, but his influence has reached far into my heart and identity as a twenty-first-century American composer, conductor and performer.
The problem with classical music in America is the lack of American qualities. We are not a people of tuxedos, champagne and classy concert settings; we are of casual dress, cocktails and night clubs. Yet the concerts and musicians of the twentieth century attempted to mimic European style. Bernstein, whether intentional or not, broke the mold of a classical musician by embracing modern American culture. Performing jazz, working with popular musicians, and composing musicals has opened the doors for modern classical composers and performers to compose for film, collaborate with artists from a variety of genres and even listen to the music of Lady Gaga with pride.
Bernstein also helped to define the American concert experience with his belief that music is for everyone. His Young People’s Concerts, Thursday Evening Previews, and televised lectures have paved the way for modern orchestras to create all sorts of outreach concerts and forced generations of conductors to perform that ever so frightening task of talking to the audience.
Finally, beyond the endless ways in which Leonard Bernstein changed the American musical landscape, the one that affects young musicians the most was his intense passion in performance. The idea that every last ounce of emotional, physical and intellectual energy should be thrown into music making is one that can be seen throughout many generations of performers.
As I remember Leonard Bernstein on his 92nd birthday, I am truly grateful as an American musician for the musical future he created and I am filled with great joy and amusement when I think that ninety-two years from now, scholars will come to the Library of Congress to study it all as historical performance. Happy Birthday Lenny!