Immersed in the eclecticism of American culture, Leonard Bernstein was the first major American conductor to grow up listening to pop tunes and jazz. With Gilbert and Sullivan, Jerome Kern and black music among his early loves, his genius lay in an ability to assimilate pop, classical and uniquely American forms of music into genre-busting compositions endowed with an immediately identifiable personal voice.
Fourteen years after his death, Bernstein's reputation as the most influential American composer-conductor of the last century has continued to grow. To honor his life and work, Chicago's WFMT radio network and Steve Rowland have created Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, an 11-part radio documentary airing on a whopping 765 stations in the United States, Canada and New Zealand, and it starts Sunday, Jan. 2, in the Springs on classical music station KCME-FM.
The radio series took six years to produce. One hundred people were interviewed and thousands of personal documents were scoured in order to create a rounded portrait of the man. Actress Susan Sarandon narrates the finished product with a grounded earthiness. In addition, actor Alec Baldwin, actress Maria Tucci, Lenny's daughter Jamie, and New York City's former cultural commissioner and record producer Schuyler Chapin read the correspondence and comments.
Judging from a pre-release recording of the first program, Bernstein: The Early Years, listeners have much to look forward to.
Born in Lawrence, Mass., on Aug. 25, 1918, Bernstein the man, educator and musician constantly communicated what composer John Corigliano terms an "intense joy in being alive." Inheriting a classic Jewish love and respect for learning -- his father believed that education was the solution to the ills of the world -- young Lenny's mind was constantly seeking new areas of exploration, the fruits of which were reflected in his music, conducting and teaching. While the series amply illuminates his achievements, it remains to be seen to what extent it will discuss his bisexuality and progressive dependence upon cigarettes, alcohol and harder drugs.
In 1937, while still a student at Harvard, Lenny met Aaron Copland at a concert. Surprised by Copland's warmth and accessibility, he immediately struck up a friendship. A year later, Copland invited him to visit. Promising to teach his future protg everything he knew, Copland helped welcome him into a musical circle that included Marc Blitzstein, William Schuman, Roy Harris and Paul Bowles. To this mix was soon added Adolph Green, Bernstein's first roommate after Harvard, and Serge Koussevitsky, his musical godfather of sorts. That some of these men were either Jewish, homosexual or both certainly contributed to camaraderie.
To accompany the radio series, Deutsche Grammophon has just released Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, a two-CD set featuring music heard in the documentaries. Excerpts of Bernstein conducting his own compositions are complemented by Lenny conducting Ives, Tchaikovsky, Copland, Mahler, Hindemith and Britten. While the only works represented in their entirety are Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man (originally part of his Third Symphony) and Ives' The Unanswered Question, there are two delicious bonuses in the form of performances by Sarah Vaughan ("I Feel Pretty") and the Oscar Peterson Trio ("Something's Coming" from West Side Story).
-- Jason Victor Serinus
Leonard Bernstein: An American Life
Sunday, Jan. 2 through Sunday, March 13 at 3 p.m.
Webcast at www.kcme.org
The entire 11-week program is available on compact disc by visiting www.artistowned.com