Leonard Bernstein Conducting the New York Philharmonic, 1958 to 1969 January 20 2023

Born a few months before the end of the First World War, it’s impossible to put a single label on Leonard Bernstein – even ‘musician’ seems inadequate, as he was equally important as both music educator and humanitarian as he was conductor and composer. One of the most influential Americans, let alone musicians, of the twentieth century, Bernstein was also the first conductor both born and trained in America to be Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Leonard Bernstein large signed photo conducting

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Maestro Bernstein during a rehearsal of Beethoven's "Fidelio"


Bernstein’s debut with the New York Philharmonic came a full 15 years before he took over as sole music director. He had been assisting Artur Rodzinski, who was later to resign from the New York Philharmonic in 1947 after a series of disputes. However, 14th November 1943 was to be Bernstein’s night. With no rehearsal – and only minimal discussion and preparation by Walter – he took over Bruno Walter’s challenging program, including Strauss’ Don Quixote, at almost no notice when the guest conductor came down with the flu.

That afternoon, Bernstein had been accompanying the mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel at New York Town Hall, where they had been performing his song cycle I Hate Music. He’d been hired by Rodzinski the previous August, around the same time that choreographer Jerome Robbins had approached him about writing Fancy Free. Bernstein’s works were already starting to show his uniquely distinctive popular-classical voice, which would make his music particularly accessible.

Leonard Bernstein signed photo conducting

Shortly after the recital, as he was celebrating with his family, he received a phone call: Walter was ill, and Rodzinski was snowed in. Could he be on standby for the broadcast concert the following day? Bruno Zirato, from the New York Philharmonic management assured him that either Walter would be feeling better, or Rodzinski would find a way to get to New York. There was absolutely nothing to worry about. Bernstein went home to study his scores, just in case. At 9.30 the following morning, he got the call – he was on.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Maestro Bernstein in performance

As debuts go, it was noteworthy enough to make the front page of The New York Times the following day, with the editorial remarking “it’s a good American success story”. The concert was broadcast live on CBS Radio Network, and Bernstein’s instant status as a household name was assured. A recording of most of the concert exists, and it indicates a mature and intelligent reading of the scores, however nervous Bernstein might have been feeling.

It would be some years before Bernstein returned as the orchestra’s musical director, and he turned both to composition and conducting in the years between his debut and his return – Jeremiah (Symphony No.1), Fancy Free (a ballet about three young sailors), and its expansion, the musical On The Town all date from this period.

He also made his debut as an opera conductor over this period, giving the American premiere of Peter Grimes at Tanglewood in 1944, and was also the piano soloist in the world premiere of his Symphony No.2: The Age of Anxiety with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


Leonard Bernstein large signed photo 1988

Leonard Bernstein made his initial return to the New York Philharmonic in 1957, sharing the post with Dimitri Mitropoulos until taking sole charge in 1958. Bernstein held the post for over 30 years, first as music director, then as Laureate Conductor, an appointment made in 1969. Bernstein’s association with the orchestra was to last for the rest of his life.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A photo portrait of a very young Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s first American born and trained director, and he well and truly took it into the twentieth century, introducing the orchestra to televised performance, commissioning new works – over 100, including Aaron Copland’s Connotations – and importantly for the future of musicianship amongst the young in America, a 14-season, 11 Emmy winning run of Young People’s Concerts.


Although the Young People’s Concerts had begun in earnest over 30 years earlier in 1924 under the direction of Ernest Schelling, Family Matinee concerts with the orchestra dated back as far as 1885. The name “Young People’s Concerts” was first attached to the series in 1914 by Josef Stransky, and the series ran uninterrupted from 1926. Combining musical performance and lectures, they formed an educational program the orchestra could be proud of.

Bernstein brought the concerts to a whole new level of attention. His first appearance as music director, on 19th January 1958 at Carnegie Hall, was the first to be televised. Four years later, the series was the first shown on CBS from the Lincoln Centre, and was syndicated in over 40 countries. All of these concerts are available on DVD. 

Although Bernstein ceased to be music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969 when he became Conductor Emeritus, he continued the Young People’s Concerts through to 1972, and even continued to conduct them through his sabbatical season in 1964-1965.

 Young People's Concert: "What is a Mode?" with the NYP, November 23, 1966

The concerts were broadcast on Saturday, and later moved on Sunday prime time to counter Chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s Newton N, Minow’s comment that television, culturally speaking, was a “vast wasteland”. Concert subjects included “What is American Music?”, “What is a Melody?”, and a series of Young Performers episodes, with participants in the latter including Edo de Waart, Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa, and Lynn Harrell.

Bernstein’s legacy is that these concerts continued long after his tenure, initially under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, but with guests including Erich Leinsdorf, Pierre Boulez, and Aaron Copland. The Very Young People’s Concerts, starting in 2005, included musical games, and a 30 minute concert of a story set to music. Children attending also got to try out small string instruments before they went home.


1958 also saw a groundbreaking tour to Central and South America, sponsored by the United States Department of State, and designed to improve international relations. The touring continued into 1959 into Europe, and most notably to the former Soviet Union – and at a time when relations were less than cordial.

Parts of the tour were televised on the CBS Television Network, and perhaps the greatest highlight was the orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in the presence of the composer, who came onstage at the end to congratulate Bernstein and the musicians.

Although Bernstein’s political viewpoint could probably best be described as universalism over and above true socialism or communism, his left-leaning activities (such as supporting Paul Robeson in speaking out against the fascist regime in Spain) had led to him being declared “off-limits” by CBS, and listed as a communist by the FBI.

Leonard Bernstein used baton and composing pencils

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Original Conducting Baton and Composing/Correcting Pencils of Maestro Bernstein

The production of West Side Story went some way towards his redemption in 1957, but the New York Philharmonic European tour in 1959 was critical in Bernstein’s ultimate political redemption in the USA.

The orchestra were hailed as diplomatic heroes, acting as ambassadors in Eisenhower’s Special International Program for Cultural Presentations, and Bernstein’s status as a cultural ambassador was assured.


It’s hard to believe that it was possible that composers such as Gustav Mahler – staggering, since Mahler had been music director between 1909 and 1911 - and Jean Sibelius were largely neglected and ignored in America prior to Bernstein’s themed programming initiatives, but not only did he make them standard repertoire, he actively commissioned and performed new works, conducting over 40 premieres.

The decade saw a historic Mahler cycle begin for Columbia, recording eight of the nine symphonies (with the Eighth Symphony being recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra).

He championed American music, and his close friendships with the likes of Aaron Copland and William Schuman helped make their works known to the public.

Leonard Bernstein also expanded upon the recording relationship between the orchestra and Columbia Records, leading to a catalogue of over 400 works (most of Bernstein’s later recordings are for Deutsche Grammophon). The orchestra’s performing home was Carnegie Hall, although Bernstein preferred to record in the Manhattan Centre, and later in Philharmonic Hall.

Leonard Bernstein signed book

Leonard Bernstein’s activism included smaller acts closer to home, such as looking after those that played under him. The 1960s saw violinist Sanford Allen join the orchestra as its first black player, and double bassist Orin O’Brien join as only the second woman (harpist Steffy Goldberg had been the first in 1922).

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] "Leonard Bernstein: The Man, his Work and his World" by John Bridges, first edition published by The World Publishing Company, 1961.

The orchestra continued to tour, and Bernstein continued to break boundaries by giving talks from the stage – unheard of at the time. In one famous incident in April 1962, he posed the question “in a concerto, who is the boss: the soloist or the conductor?”, when he disagreed with – and yet still felt and supported the artistic value of – Glenn Gould’s utterly idiosyncratic reading of the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 in D.

On the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, he famously responded that “this will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before”.

Leonard Bernstein stood down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, accepting the position of Laureate Conductor, which he retained until his death in 1990.


Bernstein’s first year as Conductor Laureate at the New York Philharmonic was as much marked by his activism as his musicianship; he held a fundraising for the Black Panthers at his home, and also conducted the Bicentennial production of Beethoven’s Fidelio in Vienna – a similarly political statement. Musically, he was appointed the artistic advisor for Tanglewood, a post he held until 1974.

The following year, 1971, his work Mass, a theatre piece for Orchestra, dancers and singers, opened the Kennedy Centre in Washington. 1971 also held another benchmark – his one thousandth performance with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The work was Mahler’s Second Symphony, the Resurrection – no other work could have been suitable. This was also the same year that Pierre Boulez became the first French music director of the orchestra, and an ensemble calling themselves the Flux Fiddlers (members of the string section of the New York Philharmonic) played on John Lennon’s Imagine album.

Leonard Bernstein - A Quiet Place poster signed

Bernstein’s famous lecture series, The Unanswered Question, given at Harvard, formed a component of his obligations as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry for that academic year. Recorded, these lectures are thankfully available to view on YouTube – at this stage of his life, Bernstein was keen for his work to be documented for educational purposes.

[IMAGE] Poster for a performance of Bernstein's  "A Quiet Place & Trouble in Tahiti" at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 1984.

Although not directly related to his work with the New York Philharmonic, there is a direct link back to his 1958 Young People’s Concert lecture, “What does music mean?” The lectures had mixed success, not helped by a bomb scare during the first lecture, after which many students did not return.

The middle 1970s brought another extensive tour with the New York Philharmonic, taking the orchestra to New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. The workload was brutal; after one concert on 25th August 1974, Bernstein left the stage and pretended to collapse into the arms of a member of the orchestra. There had been three concerts in just over 24 hours, and he was exhausted. The concert just played had been taped for television, and the first movement had been marred by not one but two crying babies in the audience, leading Bernstein to repeat the first movement at the end of the concert to give the television crew a ‘clean’ recording. However, in typical Bernstein fashion, he said “nobody pulled out my fingernails. It was my own doing.” That was also the year the young, 28 year old Eliot Chapo took over as leader of the orchestra.

Grammy Awards also punctuated the decade, with awards in 1974 for the Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra, in 1978 for Concert of the Century, and with voices and instrumentalists, for the Berio Sinfonia in 1970.

Bernstein continued to compose over this decade, with premieres of his music 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (which was sadly not a success), and his late-running – as it was intended for America’s bicentennial – ensemble song cycle, Songfest. It also brought sadness; his wife, Felicia, died on 16th June 1978.

The 1980s saw Bernstein compose more, and receive the Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Contributions to American Culture through the Performing Arts. His activism and advocacy continued, conducting Shirley Verrett through the Star Spangled Banner for a Gay Men’s Health Crisis AIDS fundraising event.

Leonard Bernstein signed photo 1976

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Cibachrome print photograph of the star conductor shown in rehearsal in Philadelphia, 1976. Photo by Allen Winigrad.

1983 brought the first New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace, with Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic through Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, and two years later premiering his own Postlude to his opera A Quiet Place. The following year saw him named an Honorary Member of the New York Philharmonic.

On 31st October 1989, Bernstein conducted his last concert with the orchestra. His final concert was to be with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 10 months later, in a program including Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Not quite a year after his final concert with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein died at home, at 6.15 on the evening of 14th October 1990.


Rarely lost for words, Bernstein is famous for some of the most frequently quoted (and misquoted) music-related utterances of the last century. In addition to his words already quoted above, here are a few more famous examples:

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time” (on composition)

I am not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself, I want to sound it as the composer” (on conducting)

Life without music is unthinkable. Life without music is academic. That is why my contact with music is totally an embrace” (on music)

Wangle me a couple of koalas” (after being given a gift of opal cufflinks on a tour of Australia with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1974)

I adore it from the outside” (on the Sydney Opera House)

The Bible of Opera” (on Maria Callas)

If we can pray, let us pray. I know of only two ways to pray. One is to say thank you and sing a song. The other is to pray that our boastfully called divine spark, our pilot light, our little blue flame that is our capacity to love, that little light may never be extinguished as long as we inhabit this wonderful earth with one another.” (On Hope in the Nuclear Age).

Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] American pianist Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal -photo by Don Hunstein

MAESTRO - Bradley Cooper to play Leonard Bernstein in 2023

An exciting project regarding Leonard Bernstein to look forward to is the upcoming Netflix film starring Bradley Cooper, who plays Leonard Bernstein, and Carey Mulligan, who plays his wife Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein. Rather than a biopic, the film is set to concentrate on the couple’s unconventional yet ultimately loving marriage.

Felicia Montealegre was always fully aware that Bernstein was homosexual, and wrote to him in 1951, “I am willing to accept you as you are”. Their marriage was based on love and respect, and they had three children together.

And it was respect that colored Bernstein’s entire professional life – Walter Botti, a double bass player with the New York Philharmonic for 50 years said of him “Lenny loved everybody and he wanted to be loved by everybody…he never embarrassed anybody, or put people on the spot. He was a real mensch.”

 Leonard Bernstein conducting the finale from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1988.


- Leonard Bernstein Signed Photograph in Performance

Leonard Bernstein Original Baton and Pencils

Leonard Bernstein Signed Photograph in Rehearsal 1976

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- Leonard Bernstein Signed Photo in Opera Rehearsal

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