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Leonard Bernstein

Laureate Conductor, 1943–1990


1969–90, Laureate Conductor

b. Lawrence, Massachusetts, August 25, 1918
d. New York, October 14, 1990

Leonard Bernstein’s career was one of many firsts. Following his now-legendary debut with the Orchestra in 1943, as the last-minute replacement for an ailing Bruno Walter on a live radio broadcast, Bernstein guest conducted for the Orchestra regularly until his appointment as the Philharmonic’s first American-born-and-trained Music Director in 1958. Bernstein was also the first to introduce the Philharmonic to television; his Young People’s Concerts won 11 Emmys during its 14-season run. Also under his direction, the Orchestra began its largest commissioning initiative yet, requesting over 100 new works. In 1962, Bernstein premiered Copland’s Connotations at the opening concert at the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, completing the Philharmonic’s move from Carnegie Hall to Philharmonic (now David Geffen) Hall.

Bernstein also fought for the rights of the musicians under his baton. He expanded the Philharmonic’s schedule to include touring in the off season, thereby ensuring that musicians of the Orchestra were guaranteed year-round employment. Furthermore, he was one of the first music directors to admit women to the Orchestra, beginning with the hiring of bassist Orin O’Brien in 1966. In a program after his death, the Orchestra remembered America’s best-known classical musician: “His 11 years as our Music Director [1958–69] and 21 years as our Laureate Conductor were periods of brilliance in the Orchestra’s history. Mr. Bernstein will be remembered for his genius, his leadership, his humanitarianism, his ability to transmit his love of music to young and old, his dedication to our Orchestra, his service to young musicians, and his unforgettable, ebullient, and caring personality. We are grateful for his legacy.” In tribute to Bernstein, the Philharmonic will occasionally perform one of his compositions without a conductor.

In total, Bernstein’s association with the Philharmonic spanned 47 years, 1,244 concerts, and 200-plus recordings. He was also closely linked to the Vienna Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Rome’s Santa Cecilia Academy. He conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, and the Vienna State Opera, taught at Brandeis University, and headed the conducting faculty at the Berkshire Music Center.

Leonard Bernstein was multi-talented as a performer (his earliest aspirations were as a pianist), composer, conductor, lecturer, author, and teacher. He announced his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990, and died at his apartment from a heart attack five days later. As his funeral procession moved through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, calling out “Goodbye, Lenny.”

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