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Leonard Bernstein: An American Life

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Presented as part of WNYC's "Our Lenny" festival, Leonard Bernstein: An American Life is a comprehensive exploration of virtually every aspect of Bernstein's life and career. Six years in the making, the series draws extensively on Bernstein's own correspondence, and features interviews with members of his own family — as well as more than one hundred people who knew and worked with him. Susan Sarandon narrates, with guests including John Adams, Marin Alsop, Betty Comden, John Corigliano, Adolph Green, Bobby McFerrin, Hal Prince, Mary Rodgers, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Stephen Sondheim, among many others.

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Broadcast Schedule

Hour One: Leonard Bernstein—The Early Years (1917-1939)

Airs Wednesday, September 24 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Thursday, September 25 at 1PM on WNYC2
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The series begins with an overview and introduction to the career of Leonard Bernstein. We then go back to the beginning, to the sub-culture of Eastern European immigrant American Jews in the first decades of this century; especially as reflected in the life and worldview of Bernstein’s father Sam. We look at the hopes, the ethos, the ambitions—the culture and the music of the immigrant Jews—and their resonance with, and influence on, the young Leonard Bernstein. The hour follows Bernstein through his early years, through his Harvard years and finally to his meeting with Aaron Copland, and Copland’s key influence on Bernstein’s development.

Hour Two: 12 Gates to the City—Meeting the Mentors (1939—1943)

Airs Thursday, September 25 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Friday, September 26 at 1PM on WNYC2
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Hour two sees Bernstein through his years at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia under Fritz Reiner, his first summer at Tanglewood, his friendship with the great conductor Dmitri Mitropolous and the beginning of his life changing apprenticeship with Boston Symphony Orchestra Maestro, Serge Koussevitsky. After Curtis, Lenny moves to New York where we meet his show business friends, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and Judy Holliday, then performing as the Revuers, with Bernstein as an occasional accompanist. While working as a transcriber and arranger for Harms Music Publishing, Bernstein gets his first miraculous break, an appointment as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The assistantship—and the hour—culminates with Bernstein filling in for the sick Bruno Walter and becoming, in 1943, the first American born conductor to lead a NY Philharmonic subscription concert. The Sunday afternoon concert is on national radio and the 25 year old Bernstein is suddenly a star.

Hour Three: New York, New York (1944-1951)

Airs Saturday, September 27 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Sunday, September 28 at 1PM on WNYC2
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A look at the peripatetic world of the young Leonard Bernstein as he establishes himself as the wunderkind of American culture. We follow him from the creation of the groundbreaking Musical Comedy "On The Town" with Jerome Robbins, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, to his emergence as a force in the world "serious music" with the composition of his first two symphonies, "Jeremiah" and "Age of Anxiety." We look at some of the other personalities that were key in Bernstein’s development, including the composer Mark Blitzstein and we follow Bernstein as he takes the baton of The New York City Center Orchestra. We also discuss Bernstein’s role in the Israeli War of Independence, the establishment of the Israel Philharmonic and generally examine Bernstein’s role as both agent and representative of the change in American culture during the immediate post war era. The hour ends with Bernstein’s marriage to the Chilean actress, the former Felicia Montealegre.

Hour Four: Tonight (1951-1958)

Airs Sunday, September 28 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Monday, September 29 at 1PM on WNYC2
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In hour four we look at Lenny’s role in the development of Tanglewood, with newly established Brandeis University, his first opera, "Trouble in Tahiti," the death of Serge Koussevitsky and the birth of Bernstein’s first two children Jamie and Alexander. We follow his triumphant conducting debut with Maria Callas at La Scala in Milan, his return to Broadway with the show "Wonderful Town," his film scoring ("On the Waterfront") and his compositional work of the period (Serenade). The mid-50’s find Bernstein at the height of his public reputation. We look at his TV music specials for Robert Saudek and CBS’ Omnibus series, and finally Bernstein’s landmark works in the musical theatre, "Candide" and "West Side Story."

Hour Five: A New Frontier—The Philharmonic Years (1959-68)

Airs Monday, September 29 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Tuesday, September 30 at 1PM on WNYC2
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Three months after Bernstein’s triumph with "West Side Story," he takes over as conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, arguably America’s flagship orchestra. This hour finds Bernstein, enthroned as "star conductor," heir to the tradition of Koussevitsky, Stokowski and Toscanini and the living embodiment of the Television age in serious music. We view Bernstein as a key cultural component of the ideology and mythos of the Kennedy Years. In this era Bernstein also composes and performs his 3rd and 4th symphonies, "Kaddish" and "Chichester Psalms." We hear the music and examine the mixed critical response to Bernstein’s compositional work in these years. Finally we examine the influence of televised "Young People’s concerts" with the New York Philharmonic.

Hour Six: Bernstein—The Conductor (Part One)

Airs Tuesday, September 30 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Wednesday, October 1 at 1PM on WNYC2
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We discuss his apprenticeship with Serge Koussevitsky, Fritz Reiner, and Dmitri Mitropoulos, his Philharmonic debut and his subsequent career leading the Philharmonic. We look at his early work with the Israel Philharmonic and his guest-conducting career in Europe and in Israel, especially in the latter part of his life. We also look at Bernstein’s historic role as the first important American born conductor, as well as examining the conductor's role in general. What does a conductor do and how does he/she do it? What is the relationship between a conductor’s interpretation of a work and the score itself? We also examine Bernstein’s role as a teacher, which was both to central to his idea of himself, and perhaps also central to the development of a generation of American conductors.

Hour Seven: Bernstein—The Conductor (Part Two)

Airs Wednesday, October 1 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Thursday, October 2 at 1PM on WNYC2
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We discuss some of Bernstein’s stunning international successes, including his Freedom Concert in Berlin, the 1989 Warsaw concert marking the 50th Anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, his concert on Mt. Scopus after the 6 Day War in Israel, and his role helping the nation mourn after the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy. Finally we examine how Bernstein's interpretations of the classics differ from those of other great conductors. We will hear many examples of what music Bernstein best liked to conduct and discuss his role in the introduction of 20th Century works into the classical repertoire. We also examine Bernstein’s central role in the revival of interest in the work of composer and conductor, Gustav Mahler.

Hour Eight: Crossroads (1968-1978)

Airs Friday, October 3 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Saturday, October 4 at 1PM on WNYC2
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We follow Bernstein as he leaves the Philharmonic in 1968 to concentrate more on composition. This hour covers the creation of Bernstein’s "Mass" in 1971, his Norton lectures on music and language at Harvard in 1973, and his signing of a new record contract with Deutsche Grammophon in 1972, ending his 25 year relationship with Columbia records. This move to the German based record company was accompanied by a steady tilt of Bernstein away from his American base and toward Europe where he now did most of his conducting. This hour will also touch on Bernstein’s "Songfest" of 1977, his collaboration on the ballet the "Dybbuk" with Jerome Robbins in 1974, and the colossal failure of his 1976 Bicentennial musical collaboration with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner on the ill fated musical "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." In 1976 Bernstein publicly separated with Felicia and moved in with his longtime lover, Tommy Cochran. Four months later Bernstein moved back in with Felicia, however several months after that, Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died in 1978 and Bernstein blamed himself for her death. He never completely recovered—either from her loss or his sense of guilt.

Hour Nine: Bernstein—The Composer (Part One)

Airs Saturday, October 4 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Sunday, October 5 at 1PM on WNYC2
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Bernstein’s role as a composer is often overshadowed by his roles as conductor and teacher. This hour (and the next) will feature an examination of Bernstein’s body of composed music. We will discuss both popular and obscure works, and will attempt a re-evaluation of Bernstein’s work as a composer. We begin this process by viewing Bernstein’s musical theatre work and his concert composition as part of a whole.

Hour Ten: Bernstein—The Composer (Part Two)

Airs Sunday, October 5 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Monday, October 6 at 1PM on WNYC2
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We continue to trace the evolution of Bernstein's own works, and examine the following issues:
What is Bernstein's achievement as a composer?
Did working in different genres help or hinder his creativity and achievement?
How did Bernstein view the evolution of his composition?
Why did he conduct works that he would not have written?

Hour Eleven: A Candle Burned At Both Ends (1979-1990)

Airs Monday, October 6 at 9PM on 93.9FM and Tuesday, October 7 at 1PM on WNYC2
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Bernstein continues his moves toward Europe in the 80’s. His work in this period includes the opera "A Quiet Place," and the film "Love of Three Orchestras," which documents Bernstein’s work with the Vienna Philharmonic, The New York Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic. We examine Bernstein’s role in the launching of the Mahler mania of the last 20 years as well as his last compositional work, "Concerto for Orchestra." We follow Bernstein to his heroic Freedom Concert at the fall of the Berlin Wall, to his last performance in Tanglewood, to the events surrounding his death in 1990. The series culminates with a look at Bernstein's legacy: his final days are colored by his own sense of failure. Only after his passing does it become clear the immensity of Bernstein’s place in the music of the 20th century.
Leonard Bernstein: An American Life was produced by Steve Rowland with Larry Abrams, in cooperation with The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc., and a formal association with The Library of Congress. Major funding provided by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, The William Penn Foundation, Joan and Irving Harris, Richard and Mary L. Gray, Fay and Daniel Levin and the Members of the WFMT Fine Arts Circle.