Leonard Bernstein in 1955EXPAND
Leonard Bernstein in 1955
Al Ravenna/Courtesy Library of Congress

"Leonard Bernstein at 100" Exhibition Comes to Skirball Cultural Center

If you combine Lin-Manuel Miranda’s command of the stage, Hans Zimmer’s skilled compositions and Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting flair, you could access a peephole view of the 20th century’s quintessential Renaissance man, Leonard Bernstein. Far more multifaceted than any millennial, Bernstein is the youngest ever conductor of the New York Philharmonic, the composer of both stage and film versions of West Side Story not to mention the opera Candide, and the person who brought classical music played by young people to television with Young People’s Concerts as The Beatles were storming The Ed Sullivan Show.

This year marks the centennial of Bernstein’s birth — his name is pronounced “stine” rather than “steen,” a point of contention for the fellow affectionately called Lenny. “Leonard Bernstein at 100,” a two-year celebration of the icon’s accomplishments, was launched last year on his birthday, August 25, with a series of concerts. Comprised of 2,000 events on six continents, the centerpiece of “Leonard Bernstein at 100” is a traveling exhibition of the same name that makes its West Coast debut at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The comprehensive exhibit, which has made stops at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, includes more than 150 pieces curated by the Grammy Museum’s Bob Santelli. Items have been collected from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, New York Philharmonic Archives, the Library of Congress and Indiana University Bloomington Jacobs School of Music, among other sources including Bernstein’s family. These provide a chronological and detailed illustration of his life and many accomplishments for both the longtime fan and Bernstein novice alike.

Inarguably the most important homegrown figure in classical music, not only in America but around the world, Bernstein’s multidimensional work is a reflection of the rapidly changing eras of the last century. Says Santelli, “When Bernstein first broke out, classical music was popular, particularly if you were educated and considered yourself cultured. Because of the deep advent of rock & roll in the ’50s and ’60s, that was the first true generation to shy away from classical music in a significant way. With his Young People’s Concerts television program, he did his best to continue the popular cultural form of classical music.

“That’s why we did the exhibit,” he continues. “Bernstein was bold and energetic and innovative and not afraid to be dramatic. He was Hollywood handsome and everything rock stars became from the ’60s onwards. If he were an athlete, he’s be a triple threat because he was a brilliant composer, a brilliant conductor and a concert pianist of the highest order. He wrote hardcore classical music but also the music for West Side Story. There isn’t anyone who comes close to his vibrancy. He could do it all.”

The many headshot and action shot images of Bernstein reveal his undeniable charisma, while caricature drawings from Al Hirschfeld reflect a playful side to his personality. A select few of Bernstein’s many awards — Grammys, Emmys, nomination plaques and gold records — stud display walls while collectible programs, playbills, posters, album covers and magazine covers are plastered over other walls like framed wallpaper. His scripts, fan letters and letters written by the avid keeper of correspondence sit under glass. His piano, writing desk and elements of his studio breathe with a life of their own while his shirts, tuxedo, cape, vest, shoes, scarf and batons bring the man even closer to the viewer. Personal items such as marking pencils, handwritten lyrics to West Side Story’s unforgettable “Maria” and his writing tools further solidify the human behind the immense talent.

“This is the largest exhibit on classical music, certainly the largest exhibit, ever, on a single American classical artist,” Santelli says. “The average Grammy Museum exhibit when it comes to pop music is 2,500 to 3,000 square feet. This is 4,000 square feet. Putting together an exhibit is like being a detective. You have to search out the pieces that are meaningful for the exhibit. You don’t just grab. These pieces have part of an overall story and a point of view. You start by collecting as much as you can and you realize what pieces are important in terms of telling the story you want to tell.”

In addition to home videos, performance films and interviews about Bernstein, “Leonard Bernstein at 100” features interactive exhibits. These include a vocal booth where you can sing “America” from West Side Story, an area where you can take over Bernstein’s conducting duties, another where his symphonies are deconstructed and a listening bar to experience his best-known works.

“In terms of museum exhibits, if you’re just looking at things, that’s very 20th-century,” Santelli says. “A balanced museum exhibit has opportunities to make it an active as opposed to a passive experience. The interactives are a good way to get inside and underneath the music. With young people particularly, that’s very necessary.

“We did the exhibit, not for all the Bernstein fans out there, of which there are many, but more for the grandchildren of those fans so they could learn about this incredible genius. We wanted to build an education program around the exhibit so people who only knew the name but didn’t know anything about him could see how complex and interesting he was, along with all the great music he made.”

“Leonard Bernstein at 100” runs at the Skirball Cultural Center April 26 through Sept. 2. More information at skirball.org.

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