I always loved music. As a little girl, I played The Nutcracker Suite on my new 45 RPM record player and danced around the living room to the Sugar Plum Fairy, while my older sister listened to Frank Sinatra on her 78 RPM player.
Then we got television – somewhere around 1949 - a 12 inch screen smaller than most tablets today, housed in a cabinet larger than an end table. In 1954, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, televised (on CBS) a series of Young People’s Concerts. Bernstein was the first conductor to do so. Lenny talked to us and played for us (typically from the piano – he was a skilled pianist) so that we understood and absorbed. He was the consummate educator. I was 12 years old and I was hooked on music and all things Lenny.
Lenny, 1941, Rittenhouse Square
Bernstein rose to fame in 1941 when the conductor became ill at the last minute and he stepped into that role. He was 25 years old. Through the ensuing years he composed Broadway musicals On the Town, West Side Story (in 1957 and later the movie in 1961), Candide, and many classical pieces including his Mass, three symphonies and movie scores. I attended as many performances as I could; in the case of West Side Story, many times.
Bernstein studied conducting here in Philadelphia at Curtis Institute beginning in 1939 after graduating from Harvard, and to earn extra money, he taught music at a private grade school in Abington – The Meadowbrook School. They recently found a payroll receipt for him (disclosure: my niece and nephew attended this school and that’s what they told us).
In 2018, we celebrate what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday. He died in 1990. The National Museum of American Jewish History showcases his life with stories and artifacts fascinating even for non-music lovers and Bernstein fans. The exhibit runs through September 2; the museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays (check www.NMAJH.org for hours and other Bernstein events under the Programs tab). Friday afternoons beginning at noon on April 13 has free admission. When visiting, look for one of Bernstein’s 15 Grammys in the Only in America gallery on the first floor, and a short overview of his life on screen. In the exhibit area on the 5th floor, look for Bernstein’s conducting suit, his composing pencils, a set of interactive blocks that play some of his compositions. I especially loved the screening room with two screens: one played various songs from West Side Story with the cast of the movie while simultaneously, the second highlighted various entertainers singing the same song. Ingenious!
For information on all events in Philadelphia this spring and summer, visit www.visitphilly.com/events. There’s something for everyone’s interest and tastes. Also check out www.manncenter.org for information on their free Young People’s Concert Series starting on Wednesday, May 30, at 10:00 am. They will be performing West Side Story. Register and take your grandkids.
Lenny with his piano on display
Harriette Mishkin is co-chair of the Communications Committee and a member of Penn's Village. She is founder and principal of Performance Concepts, a management consulting firm.