Why Leonard Bernstein Still Matters. A lot.
If you grew up in the '60s or '70s and loved music, you couldn't get away from Leonard Bernstein. And who would want to? America's greatest musical ambassador, and possibly greatest musician, was also a great entertainer. Between his outsized personality and his jet-set lifestyle, he was a living rebuke to the stuffy, self-important image classical music had gained. And his regular TV appearances and concerts helped keep it all interesting, relevant and fun, at a time when hardly anyone else in the field seemed to care. Now, his daughter Jamie has teamed up with one of his proteges, Michael Barrett, and some top-notch singers to remind us all just how much Lenny meant to music in this country, in an evening called simply A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein.
No-one ever disputed Bernstein's musicianship, but the fact that he had success on Broadway and in the jazz and rock worlds (he was one of the first "serious musicians" to take the Beatles seriously), only served as proof to his critics that he was "wasting his talents." To anyone who got it, though, who really cared about the future of classical music and wanted to learn, he was more than just a breath of fresh air. It was a time when music education was starting to disappear from the country's public schools, classical music was retreating into an ivory tower, and rock and soul were taking over the airwaves and the public consciousness. Bernstein was not only prescient enough to recognize the value of popular culture but savvy enough to use its tools for the benefit of the so-called "higher arts." He understood the connections between musical genres in the way that no one else at the time seemed to, and he understood the power of television in helping us all to get it, too. Others have filled that role since he died (like our own Michael Tilson Thomas), but Lenny was the pioneer, and his Young People's Concerts and Omnibus programs from the '60s are still wonderful and fascinating today.
It may be hard for a lot of people who weren't around in Bernstein's heyday to understand just how important his legacy is, but his eldest daughter Jamie has helped pick up the baton with these musical celebrations. She was there for the good times and the challenges (like her father's difficult divorce and coming-out), and she's able to fill in the public record with family stories, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the creation of West Side Story, Candide, On the Town and more, with musical numbers featuring performers from the New York Festival of Song. It's a rare chance to get a personal look at a very public personality from one of the people who knew him best, and who understands just how he "helped keep the world safe for classical music."
You can see and hear Jamie Bernstein's A Portrait of Leonard Bernstein at 8pm on Saturday, November 7, 2009 at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto. For tickets and information, visit livelyarts.stanford.edu.