Surround Yourself in Song


Celebrating the Musical Legacy of Leonard Bernstein

by Kayla Moore


2018 marks the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, and the international musical community has responded with tributes and festivals celebrating his musical legacy. One of the greatest pioneering musicians of his generation, his wide-ranging talents included conducting, composing and performing. Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) remains one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century. 

Throughout his career, Bernstein appeared as piano soloist and conductor of symphony orchestras across the globe. He appeared at Music Hall with the CSO on three occasions—performing Ravel’s Concerto in G Major for Piano and Orchestra in 1945, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in 1946, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1947. He also conducted those three programs, including works as diverse as Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, Debussy’s La mer, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

Cincinnatians may recall Mr. Bernstein in his role as the Honorary Music Director for the May Festival Centennial celebration in 1973, conducting Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Oboist Richard Johnson is currently the longest serving member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and reflected on his time working with Mr. Bernstein during that May Festival: “It was a big deal for the orchestra and May Festival to have him—it was kind of a golden age for classical music in the media. He was on TV and radio every Sunday, with children’s concerts. He was one of the most positive famous musicians I’ve ever met, and he was there for the music. He was not there to be the ‘big man.’ He was there to have joy, and I have very positive memories of that.”

Mr. Johnson went on to say, “Bernstein was here with the May Festival during a time when it was shifting gears from being every other year, to being an annual event. There were some fairly famous guests there previously, but May Festival started to come into its own at the time of Bernstein’s arrival, and he was a symbol of that—for that one year to have him was really a big deal. He was really a mensch, a human being. He was there to share his joy of music.”

Bernstein had a unique passion, style and exuberance. With more than 20 honorary degrees, 23 Grammy Awards, 10 Emmy Awards, and countless other arts and entertainment awards, Mr. Bernstein earned the respect and love of musicians and arts advocates globally during his lifetime, and he continues to be revered as one of the greatest artists of all time.
As part of the worldwide celebration of the Bernstein Centennial, a number of notable performances at Cincinnati Music Hall have already taken place: In April, guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru led the CSO in Three Dance Episodes from On the Town as well as Bernstein’s Divertimento, and John Morris Russell conducted the live film score of West Side Story with the Cincinnati Pops. At this year’s May Festival, Robert Porco is leading a once-in-a-generation performance of the Bernstein MASS on May 19 and Juanjo Mena is conducting Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms on May 25.

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