This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Louis Bernstein, better known as Leonard Bernstein. You know the guy: composed the music for West Side Story, Candide, On the Town, and other musicals (and symphonies, and operas, and…you get the picture); conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as many of the other great orchestras of the world; wrote and lectured on classical music; and won countless awards and accolades for his contributions to the arts. A celebration of his life and legacy is currently on display at the New York Public Library For the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center, and the details and artifacts great and small make it must see for anyone serious about music or theatre.
History is written on the walls, with information about Bernstein’s early years, his mentors and influences (including Dimitri Mitropoulos, Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copeland, and George Gershwin), and his most famous accomplishments highlighted alongside listening stations and display cases, where visitors can get a sense of the roots of Bernstein’s interests and talents. Some of the bigger exhibits include the upright piano he received from his Aunt Clara when he was ten years old and the desk where he composed the music for West Side Story and Candide. There is also a conductor’s podium from the 1940s and a hair curler from his father’s hairdressing supply company that looks like either a robot squid or a torture device.
At the entrance to the library are the desk and chair of legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and the exhibit features five of Hirschfeld’s line drawing of Bernstein himself, as well as other line drawings from productions of Bernstein’s works. One display case features awards Bernstein won in his lifetime, including Grammys and Emmys, as well as the rainbow ribbon from when he became at Kennedy Center honoree in 1980 (he had hosted the first Kennedy Center Honors gala two years earlier).
In a different display case is the Tony Award he won for the score of Wonderful Town, which he shared with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The Tony is from back when the award was just the medallion, no base, and next to it is another, more obscure theatre award, a small, gold key called a Donaldson, named for W. H. Donaldson, who founded what is now Billboard magazine. The Donaldson was awarded for excellence in theatre from 1944-1955, before the Tony Award overshadowed it.
Handwritten scores and notes, programs, posters, college diplomas, and old photographs also fill display cases, surrounded by some of Bernstein’s furniture, like a stool he loved to conduct from that had previously belonged to the 19th century German composer Johannes Brahms. For anyone who wonders what it is like to conduct there is an interactive exhibit which allows the user to conduct the New York Philharmonic, and for those who love to sing there is a booth where they can sing along with “America” from West Side Story, though its lack of a ceiling, and therefore complete privacy, dampened at least my willingness to really sing out. There’s a ton more, and it’s all fascinating, but one can only write so much.
Imagining Bernstein sitting at the large desk from his Connecticut studio with one of his many collaborators or conducting with one of the batons on display allows visitors to almost feel history happening in front of them. And the story of Bernstein’s debut with the New York Philharmonic, which made the front page of The New York Times, as displayed in the exhibit, gives hope to those who have not yet had their big break. On November 14th, 1943, guest conductor Bruno Walter (for whom the library’s auditorium is named) came down with the flu, and with a few hours notice, no rehearsal, and a few warnings about tricky spots in the music from Walter, Bernstein, assistant conductor at the time, took to the stage at Carnegie Hall for a concert that was broadcast live nationally on CBS Radio. The rest is history, and the history is at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through March 24th, 2018.
Aaron Netsky’s writing has appeared on AtlasObscura.com, Slate.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, Medium.com, and all over his personal blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Days/366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). He is also a novelist, actor, singer, and songwriter who has performed and worked in a variety of capacities off and off-off Broadway. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.