Leonard Bernstein and the San Francisco Symphony

Visit this exhibit, on display January 18–February 28, in-person in the First Tier Lobby of Davies Symphony Hall to see more, including additional photographs, memorabilia from Michael Tilson Thomas, and a video celebrating Bernstein and the San Francisco Symphony.

 Leonard Bernstein rehearsing the Vienna Philharmonic in 1984Leonard Bernstein rehearsing the Vienna Philharmonic in 1984. (Photo by Paul de Hueck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an American musician, composer, conductor, author, educator, and activist. Born and educated in Massachusetts, his career took off when he stepped in at the last minute for Bruno Walter to conduct a nationally broadcast performance of the New York Philharmonic in 1943. He went on to conduct orchestras across the country and world, and became the New York Philharmonic’s first American-born music director in 1958, a position he held for 11 years. Bernstein composed dozens of works spanning a variety of genres, including three symphonies and iconic musical theater pieces like West Side Story. He became a TV personality who brought music education into America’s living room, and mentored young musicians at the Tanglewood Music Center in the summer. Bernstein approached his life and his music with unadulterated passion, inspiring generations of musicians across the globe. His influence continues to permeate our musical culture and beyond, and can be seen in the people and music of the San Francisco Symphony as we join the global celebration of the centennial of his birth.

JOIN US: Celebrating Bernstein's Centennial 

Leonard Bernstein: Conductor

Leonard Bernstein rehearses the San Francisco Symphony in March, 1950Leonard Bernstein rehearses the San Francisco Symphony in March, 1950. Click to view large. (Photo by Art Frisch for the San Francisco Chronicle, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony Archives)

Leonard Bernstein appeared with the San Francisco Symphony as a guest conductor three times early in his career. At our 1946 performance, part of the Municipal Concert Series, he premiered his Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. In 1950, he conducted the San Francisco premiere of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, which received rave reviews in the San Francisco Examiner.

Photos of Leonard Bernstein, signed during performances at the Civic Auditorium and Davies Symphony Hall with visiting orchestras in 1979 and 1984Photos of Leonard Bernstein, signed during performances at the Civic Auditorium and Davies Symphony Hall with visiting orchestras in 1979 and 1984. Click to view large. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony Archives)

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San Francisco Symphony Music Directors

The last four San Francisco Symphony music directors worked with Bernstein early in their careers: Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt, and Michael Tilson Thomas. Edo de Waart (San Francisco Symphony Music Director from 1977-1985) was a co-winner of the prestigious Dimitri Mitropoulos Conductors' Competition in New York in 1964, which secured him a one-year role as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Music Director Bernstein. “How special his expressiveness was materialized for me during the year I spent in New York,” said de Waart in an interview with the San Diego Tribune. “Being Dutch, I certainly was never as expressive as him. After conducting a concert, he would sometimes kiss everybody—and his sweat was making them wet! He was unique, totally unique.” 

READ MORE: Blomstedt remembers Leonard Bernstein

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Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas

Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas at the premiere of Arias and Barcarolles in
1983Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas at the premiere of Arias and Barcarolles in 1983.

Michael Tilson Thomas met Bernstein in the late 1960s during a summer at Tanglewood Music Center, and they became friends shortly thereafter. “There was definitely some kind of family connection,” Tilson Thomas said in an interview in 2009. “Lenny’s default was basically Jewish show business. . . . Where he would go was a repertory of Yiddishisms, double takes, snappy comebacks. That world, the more it could be spiced up with allusions to classical mythology or to some kind of social or intellectual history, well, so much the better. This was the world from which I came. This was the nature of my parents’ dinnertime conversations. So it felt kind of like, ‘Oh right! I know this environment.’”

Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein embrace, 1985Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein after a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, ca. 1985.

Their lives and careers dovetailed many times in the subsequent years, and they remained close friends until Bernstein’s death in 1990. Tilson Thomas continues to champion Bernstein’s music and work. “You know, Michael, you said something to me that at the time was startling to me,” Baritone Thomas Hampson told Tilson Thomas in an interview for the 2008 Carnegie Hall Opening Night Concert. “You said to me when we did the memorial for him here in this hall, you believed firmly that Lenny would remain in the collective memory as a composer and not as a conductor, as huge as that personality was. You always have believed that it was Leonard Bernstein the composer that would outlive in its long arc, everything. I took you at your word, but I had no way to measure that. I see that without question happening today.” “I think it’s a very authentic voice,” Tilson Thomas replied, “the cares and concerns of and hopes of a whole, very important, generation or two of American Society.”

Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas at the Washington National Cathedral in 1982Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas at “America Celebrates Stravinsky” at the Washington National Cathedral in 1982.

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On The Town

Characters in On the TownStephen Bogardus (L), Kurt Ollmann, Tyne Daly, Thomas Hampson in the San Francisco Symphony's 1996 production of On the Town. (Photo by Stefan Cohen)

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the world premiere of a semi-staged version of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town with the London Symphony Orchestra, followed by the United States premiere with the San Francisco Symphony in 1996. In 2016, Tilson Thomas and the SFS again performed this version to much acclaim.

Dancers in the 2016 semi-staged production of On the TownDancers in the 2016 semi-staged production of On the Town. (Photo by Stefan Cohen)

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Gustav Mahler

Leonard Bernstein was the first conductor to record the complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, helping establish Mahler as an enduring figure in the classical canon. Michael Tilson Thomas, also an early champion of Mahler, and the San Francisco Symphony recently completed their highly-praised recordings of the cycle, which have won multiple Grammys.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts a Mahler symphony with the San Francisco SymphonyMichael Tilson Thomas conducts a Mahler symphony with the San Francisco Symphony. (Photo by Kristen Loken)

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Television and Education

“People often say that Leonard Bernstein was a born teacher, but actually it's more accurate to say that he was a born student who just couldn't wait to share what he learned. In his whole life, he never stopped studying.”

Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter

Through his televised segments and concerts, Leonard Bernstein became the face of music education for people across America. Beginning with segments on the Omnibus television series in the 1950s, Bernstein found novel and captivating ways to connect viewers with his subjects. He went on to host 53 televised Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, ranging in subjects from “What is Music?” to “Jazz in the Concert Hall.” He called these award-winning programs “among my favorite, most highly-prized activities of my life.” “I think the main thing about Leonard Bernstein: right guy in the right place at the right time,” said Michael Tilson Thomas in an interview with the GRAMMY Museum this year, “. . .and there he is, in New York, at the birth of television. And there is CBS. And there’s one guy, Bill Paley, who’s able to say, ‘That guy’s terrific! Let’s put him on television!’ That was the experience that enabled him, as perhaps no one since Franklin Roosevelt had, to become a kind of family member to every person in the United States.”

Tilson Thomas, who succeeded Bernstein as conductor of the Young People’s Concerts in the 1970s, continued this tradition as a televised conductor and communicator with his Keeping Score series with the San Francisco Symphony. Along with radio broadcasts, a website, and an education program, Keeping Score consisted of a series of broadcast hour-long documentaries on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) focusing on eight influential composers. Each program was accompanied by an hour-long concert with the Symphony.

Michael Tilson Thomas filming during the production of Keeping Score in ViennaMichael Tilson Thomas filming during the production of Keeping Score in Vienna

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Social Activist

In addition to his influential career as a composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein was a lifelong social activist. He was an outspoken supporter for a wide range of causes, including civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and AIDS research. Not only did he raise funds and awareness for such issues through benefit concerts and galas, but created change through his actions and his music. "He was consistently engaged with the world around him, advocating for social justice and world peace through the music he composed and the ways in which he capitalized on his celebrity as a conductor," says Carol Oja, a professor of Music and American Studies at Harvard and author of Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War. "He was a musician and public intellectual attuned to the current moment." Throughout his career, Bernstein traveled the world conducting concerts at historically significant moments, such as leading Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin in 1989 to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall. His social consciousness was imbued in his compositions as well. Perhaps the work that received the most publicity for its political overtones and cultural commentary was his 1971 Mass. Written for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, DC at the behest of Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mass combines a wide variety of musical styles staged as a provocative theater piece based on the traditional Roman Catholic service. “This will be our reply to violence,” Leonard Bernstein famously said after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

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West Side Story

“When West Side Story debuted on Broadway in September 1957, the show immediately gained fame for its bold, artistic vision and unflinching engagement with social concerns of the day: racial unrest, urban gang violence, immigration and altercations with the police.”

—Carol J. Oja, Professor of Music and American Studies, Harvard University

The origins of West Side Story were rooted in choreographer Jerome Robbins’s desire to create a modern musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. When Robbins approached playwright Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein about the project in 1949, the working title was “East Side Story” and focused on two young lovers of Irish Catholic and Jewish descent. The project was slow to get off the ground, and the team reconvened five years later to reassess the show. Inspired by recent news stories of violence between Latino and White Americans, they changed the theme to racially-charged gang violence between Puerto Rican migrants and white “Polacks,” as the opposing gang is referred to in the show.

Julia Bullock in the 2013 SF Symphony performance of West Side StoryJulia Bullock performs “Somewhere” in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013 performance of West Side Story (Photo by Stefan Cohen)

West Side Story premiered at a charged time in American racial politics, as the Civil Rights movement fought for equality and landmark cases were won to desegregate the nation. Illuminating an “us vs. them” mentality still present in our society, the show was rooted in “a plea for racial tolerance,” as Leonard Bernstein wrote in his copy of Romeo and Juliet.

In 2013, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony premiered a concert version of the complete Broadway score of West Side Story, starring Alexandra Silber and Cheyenne Jackson in the roles of Maria and Tony. The recording of this production was nominated for the Best Musical Theater Album Grammy Award in 2015.

Tony, Maria and Anita on stageTony (Cheyenne Jackson), Maria (Alexandra Silber), Anita (Jessica Vosk), and Chorus in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013 production of West Side Story (Photo by Stefan Cohen)

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“Puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitorial attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, essential superiority—aren’t these all charges leveled against American society by our best thinkers?”

—Leonard Bernstein, New York Times, November 18, 1956

Leonard Bernstein’s activism and support of left-wing causes attracted the attention of the United States government in the late 1940s at a time when many artists were targeted and blacklisted for their alleged communist affiliations. He was closely monitored by the McCarthy-era government in the 1950s and after, even being denied a passport renewal until he signed an affidavit pledging his allegiance to the United States and denying any communist activities. Bernstein escaped testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), unlike his friends Aaron Copland and Lillian Hellman, whose careers were detrimentally affected by the investigation.

It was in this political atmosphere that Hellman approached Bernstein about collaborating on a stage adaptation of Voltaire’s satire Candide. While Voltaire satirized the Catholic Church and the hypocrisy of religion in his original book, Bernstein and Hellman’s production parodied the anti-communist witch hunts of HUAC. The show went through a number of writers, revisions, and productions before Bernstein conducted and recorded his “final revised version” in 1989.

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San Francisco Symphony Musicians Remember Bernstein

Melissa Kleinbart, Violin:

My first summer as a "fellow" at the Tanglewood Music Festival was in 1989 (one year before Bernstein passed away), and I was lucky enough to sit concertmaster under Bernstein for the one week he conducted. The main piece on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, and it was a performance I will always remember. He was a stickler for detail and insisted on intense focus, complete emotional engagement, and huge output of energy and commitment to each note.  Most memorable was how he used to sing “Everybody loves Koussevitzky” to the main melody in the Finale, whether set in a somber, introspective manner or a bombastic one. By the end of the performance we were all exhausted, but also elated. He threw his arms around me during the applause, his sweat dripping on my cheek, but the intensity of his embrace during the bows was a level of emotion I have never forgotten.

The following year was his last performance with the Tanglewood Orchestra as he would pass away just two months later. We were supposed to go on tour with him to Europe and everyone was devastated. During his rehearsals of Copland’s Symphony No. 3, I remember he stopped after rehearsing a phrase and said, “In all the years I have conducted this piece, this is the first time I've gotten it the way I wanted it.” 

His commitment to bringing life to each note made his performances electric, and he is eternally missed.

San Francisco Symphony Violinist Melissa Kleinbart and Leonard Bernstein

San Francisco Symphony Violinist Melissa Kleinbart and Leonard Bernstein after a concert at Tanglewood Music Festival in 1989. (Courtesy of Melissa Kleinbart)

Barbara Bogatin, Cello:

The first time I played under the baton of Leonard Bernstein was for a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall called "Music for Life" on Nov. 8, 1987. I was a cellist in the orchestra, which consisted of musicians from many different groups around New York. (I was principal cellist of New Jersey Symphony at the time.) It was the first time the classical music community presented a benefit for the care of people with AIDS, a disease that had devastated the arts world.

My experience playing under Lenny was a highlight of my musical life, and I remember every detail of the rehearsals and concert so vividly! The most thrilling moment of the concert for me was Lenny conducting the opening of The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. The piece begins with the entire string section playing very soft sustained harmony, setting the mood for the solo trumpet up in the balcony. At rehearsals, Lenny kept demanding a quieter, more magical sound from the strings. "No, no, no—too loud, too present, too earthly!"  We tried again, barely touching our bows to the strings. “No, no—the sound isn't right . . . it must be more ethereal, from the heavens, from a distant planet!" Even at the final dress rehearsal it went on like this, Lenny still frustrated, but finally forced to move on and get to the rest of the program.

SF SYMPHONY PODCAST: Ives' The Unanswered Question

That night when he came out to conduct the piece, I was nervously hoping we'd all rise to the occasion and satisfy the great maestro. He walked out slowly and stood solemnly on the podium a long time, looking around the orchestra into each musician's eyes and for me, it seemed, right into my soul. The sold-out Carnegie Hall Gala audience was utterly silent as if holding their collective breaths. Lenny put down his baton and raised his arms in a balletic slow-motion, tai chi-like gesture. When they reached high above his head, one finger on each hand made an almost imperceptible motion—that was the downbeat. We all responded as one heavenly emissary, whispering a magical sound world that contained a universe of sorrow and hope. To this day I get chills recalling that moment, embodying the magic of Leonard Bernstein.

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