Leonard Bernstein conducted himself splendidly. He didn't just write great music. He also put on a great show.
Beyond his accomplishments as a serious classical composer, Bernstein -- like Gershwin decades earlier -- crossed over merrily and with honor to the world of the Broadway theater, helping to brighten and dignify the most golden era of American musical comedy with his scores for "On the Town," "Wonderful Town," "West Side Story," "Candide" and others.
What we hear in these scores is Bernstein's voice and his inventive brilliance, but also the voice of New York as it used to be, the electric symbol of American vitality, the bustling capital of world culture, Leonard Bernstein's city. Not by coincidence, many of those shows took place in, and celebrated, Manhattan. It was Bernstein who provided the unforgettable melodic line to Comden and Green's observation, "New York, New York, it's a helluva town."
As conductor of the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras, Bernstein was known for his fiery flamboyance. He roared through life propelled by his talent, and anything but reluctant to share it. If you hadn't already heard that he was a genius, you'd know it after spending a little time with him.
The viewing nation got to do quite a bit of that in the '50s and '60s when Leonard Bernstein expanded his horizons to include television -- yes, even lowly television. He was involved in a celebrated project of cultural uplift back in the days when the commercial networks still had such goals. Bernstein hosted and conducted a series of illustrative lectures on CBS that took all the stuffiness out of classical music and made it accessible to millions.
We'll never know how many young -- and mature -- minds were turned on to Beethoven the night Bernstein strode across a giant blow-up of the score to the Fifth Symphony.
He had a warm, liquid voice and a talent for making himself understood. This was television that taught you something, but painlessly and exuberantly.
It was said that Bernstein was hardly immune to the beauty in his own work. Why shouldn't he have shared in the pleasure he gave others? During rehearsals of the theater classic "West Side Story," librettist Stephen Sondheim said he sometimes spotted Bernstein in the back of the theater, weeping copiously when the actors sang "One Hand, One Heart," one of the most emotional songs in the score.
When Bernstein came to Washington in 1971 for the opening week of the Kennedy Center and conducted his heartfelt "Mass," performances invariably ended with Bernstein hugging virtually everyone in the orchestra and large chorus. He may have ventured out into the hall and hugged members of the audience too. Tears flowed like champagne.
Music was his way of embracing the world. Clearly it thrilled him when the world hugged back.
Bernstein loomed so large that it was a little shocking to meet him and discover he wasn't tall. Yet he carried himself in a way that suggested height and strength. At any moment he could suddenly be touched, and make no attempt to conceal his feelings.
During rehearsal for one of his few flops, a White House musical called "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," Bernstein stopped on his way out of the rehearsal hall to peer through a window at a flock of young dancers learning ballet. He looked like a proud grandfather observing the children floating and soaring on the dance floor. They didn't know a great man was watching from above.
Bernstein smiled down on the young artists as, one would like to think, he is smiling down now.
Truck drivers will hum his tunes and marching bands will thump them out; high school choruses will sing his songs with gusto and beauty pageant contestants will mangle them, but lovingly. We saw Leonard Bernstein go from dazzling youth to dazzling old age, as capable of surprise at the end as at the beginning. It was, it was, a helluva life.