Skirball Center Reveals Man Behind the Music in ‘Bernstein at 100’


America has had a long love/hate relationship with classical music – mostly love – in the years leading into the mid-20th century, reversed by the 1960s “counterculture” to a collective feeling of indifference that sometimes can be roused to “hate.”

One thinks of the writings of various pop music critics over the past 30 years. Seeking to bestow the gloss of prestige upon their pet genre, they sometimes lapse into shrill defense. Jazz has often been labeled “America’s classical music.” So has blues. Rock, too. Even sub-genres, such as punk – a quaint half-century nostalgia trip now conveniently packaged and scrubbed clean of any threat to the establishment that fomented so much of its initial appeal, which inexplicably refuses to relax its grip on the collective musical consciousness – has been dubbed in some quarters as our nation’s “classical music.”

So it may come as a surprise then to these writers that America already has its classical music. Namely, classical music.

Its history is long on these shores, initially fraught with bumps. But by the dawn of the 20th century a golden age was clearly underway here, one that met (and continues to meet) with popular acclaim.

Throughout the 20th century, America contributed to the world some of the century’s most vibrant and original classical artists. Performers at first, then later some of the most important composers of the 20th century.

At the nexus of creator, performer and preacher evangelizing on behalf of the gospel of classical music stood one man: Leonard Bernstein.

In his 72 years, Bernstein streaked incandescent across the musical firmament, illuminating the disparate fields of classical music, jazz and Broadway.

Robert Santelli, however, summed up Bernstein’s achievement more concisely.

“[He] was America’s gift to classical music,” he said in a phone interview last week. “He was an immensely talented person who gave his life to music and, in the process, elevated American classical music to a height it had never experienced before – and arguably hasn’t since.”

Santelli, the founding executive director of the Grammy Museum as well as its music historian, is the curator of the Skirball Center’s “Leonard Bernstein at 100” exhibit, which celebrates the life of the artist and man on the centennial year of his birth. The exhibit, which is organized by the Grammy Museum, is the first of its kind that the institution has devoted to a classical musician.

“The Grammy Museum has been known to celebrate the centennials of some of America’s most important musical personalities. When we heard that Leonard Bernstein’s was occurring in 2018 and knowing that the Grammy Museum had not done anything on American classical music artists in its history, well, that starts and stops with Leonard Bernstein.”

Over three years Santelli absorbed all there was to learn and here about Bernstein, carefully poring over his discography as well as consulting with members of his family and staff. The resulting exhibit, which has taken another year to assemble, brings together that knowledge, as well as selected personal artifacts, into a grand narrative that does justice to Bernstein’s larger-than-life biography. Artifacts on display include his tuxedo, writings from his period as a student at Harvard, and some of his scores.

“[The exhibit] tries to convey and celebrate how [his] life and work exemplified the greatest in American classical music. However, we also wanted to tell the story of the man behind the music. He was very much a philanthropist and a political activist. He was a loving father. He was bisexual and not afraid to deal with his sexuality. He had Hollywood looks. He was a very handsome man and commanded a presence. Who was the person behind the baton, behind the music?”

Indeed in his own time Bernstein was a path-breaking and even controversial figure. He spoke admiringly of The Beatles during a time when older audiences largely denigrated them. At the height of what appeared to be the conquest of atonality, he spoke passionately on behalf of the still fertile ground of tonality.

Most controversially, he invited the Black Panthers to his home and supported their work, leading to Tom Wolfe’s infamous “Radical Chic” article. Yet he stood steadfast in his convictions, critical backlash notwithstanding.

It was these aspects of the man that Santelli hopes stay with visitors.

“If he believed in a cause, he went out on a limb and celebrated it,” he said. “In a lot of ways he’s someone from whom we can learn a lot. If you come to the exhibit as a longtime fan, you’ll find yourself validating all the positive ideas you have about him. But if you’re someone who has never come across his art, we provide ways to come to grips with the complexity of his art.”

Santelli especially hoped that the “Leonard Bernstein at 100” speaks immediately to young visitors of the Skirball.

“[I] especially hope the exhibit makes young people curious about classical music because its beauty is so overlooked today. Lenny would be happy with the exhibit if we managed to do that.”

The Skirball Center (2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles) “Leonard Bernstein at 100” exhibit opens on April 26 and closes on Sept. 8. General admission tickets are $12, $9 for seniors and for full-time students, $7 for children 2-12. The Skirball Center is free to the public on Thursdays.

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