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Lenny On the Town

The composer, conductor and humanitarian would have been 100 years old this year. But who exactly was he?

Leonard Bernstein – or “Lenny” as he was known to his friends – is considered among America’s most accomplished conductor and celebrated composers. Symphonies around the world are celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday this year by performing his works in his honor – and the San Diego Symphony is no exception.

Bernstein’s music is woven into the fabric of the American soundtrack – with iconic scores such as West Side Story and On the Town, Bernstein’s music transcended the classical genre and into Broadway and even the popular repertoire.  

This May, the Symphony will perform four concerts in celebration of Bernstein at 100, and so we’ve compiled three fast facts for you to better understand Bernstein’s legacy before you head to one of his concerts this month.

1. Bernstein founded the Young People’s Concerts program

Bernstein brought classical music directly into the homes of families in the 1960s and 70s. He was the conductor for the New York Philharmonic, of which many of his concerts were filmed and broadcast. Bernstein also founded the Young People’s Concert series, which was aimed directly at children. These concerts were broadcast live on television to reach American households all over the country. Today, the New York Philharmonic still performs Young People’s Concerts, as does many symphonies around the country – including the San Diego Symphony!

2. He broke the barriers of genre with his composition

Bernstein was often criticized as composing work that his classical work was too “jazzy” and Broadway music was too “symphonic.” However, Bernstein’s stylings made classical music more accessible to a larger audience and despite the criticism of his work during his time; his work is now incredibly popular in orchestras across the country.

 3. Bernstein was a devoted humanitarian

Bernstein believed music and the arts could be used to promote peace and understanding. He Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Berlin on Christmas Day, 1989, to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps Bernstein’s philosophy can best be summed up in a statement of his own, made shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

4. He was as passionate about education as he was music.

In addition to conducting the Young People’s Concerts, Bernstein gave lectures at Harvard and mentored young musicians as much as he could. His education philosophy centered around what he called “artful learning,” where the arts can be incorporated to strengthen overall learning. Two decades later, this philosophy has demonstrated it can increase cognitive complexity and greater understanding with higher levels of student engagement. Bernstein influenced classrooms across America by showing how important the arts are for any student.

We’ll see you On the Town at Copley Symphony Hall at one of four Bernstein tribute concerts this May.

This post was written by Kelly Hillock, marketing assistant for the San Diego Symphony.

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