The Bernstein Benchmark

The centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth has special resonance for the IPO.

LOC_Heading to Israel 1948August 25, 2018 marks the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Though his arrival to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants in Lawrence, Massachusetts was quiet and unassuming, his departure 72 years later, as one of the century’s most recognizable and revered men, had impact around the globe.

Bernstein left behind a body of work, circle of admirers and variety of energized institutions, notably the New York Philharmonic, where he was its first American-born-and-trained Music Director from 1958 to 1969, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he enjoyed a long and treasured relationship. It began in 1947 when he conducted a concert tour of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities in the final months before he turned 30 and the Palestine Symphony Orchestra became the Israel Philharmonic.

On September 21, the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. will kick off a two-year “Bernstein at 100” celebration that will include special programming at more than 130 orchestras, 14 opera companies, and scores of theaters, museums and academic institutions in 26 countries on six continents.

The Leonard Bernstein website has added a vast Internet wing that provides a complete calendar of events along with audio, video and written resources to enrich public participation and ongoing appreciation of Bernstein and his music. (See key links at the end of this article.)



One of the 20th Century’s musical giants, and arguably its most charismatic and multi-faceted, Bernstein was a concert pianist, a composer of symphonies, film scores and groundbreaking musical theater, and orchestral conductor. He was also a ubiquitous cultural icon: brilliant, witty and ruggedly handsome. He had an uncanny ability to engage youthful audiences, something he did for 15 seasons on CBS with his “Young People’s Concerts.” They remain the gold standard for both sharing understanding of the performing arts and revealing the power of television as an educational tool.

It is his relationship with the Israel Philharmonic, however, that is of importance here. A year after his 1947 concerts, which concluded the orchestra’s 10th Anniversary Season, he was back to conduct an outdoor concert for troops fighting the Arab-Israeli War.

Just as he played a significant role in the IPO’s history, conducting 313 concerts including the one in 1957 that inaugurated the Frederic R. Mann Auditorium (renamed the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in 2013 after two years of renovations) and another in 1987 to celebrate the Philharmonic’s 50th Anniversary, it played a major part in his career. On December 10, 1963, he chose to conduct the world premiere of his Symphony No. 3: Kaddish at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. For his abiding contribution, the Israel Philharmonic bestowed upon him the lifetime title of Laureate Conductor.



Bernstein_Israel_Tour_PosterOver the years, Bernstein had extensive correspondence with the Israel Philharmonic, much of which is available in his archives and private collections. Among the correspondence included in The Bernstein Letters are many references to his special connection with Israel and its orchestra.

As Letters editor Nigel Simone writes, “Bernstein’s visits to Israel were to become a central part of his career, and they did much to define his Jewish identity. His letters from 1948 … reveal something of the profound impact the country and its people had on Bernstein, the warmth and passion of his commitment to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and the joy he drew from the experience of working with these musicians.

“For Bernstein, conducting always had to be fun – in other words a genuinely rewarding experience – if it was to be worth doing at all. … In the Israel Philharmonic he found an orchestra with which he was usually at his happiest.” 

Among the prominent musical figures that knew and admired Bernstein is IPO Music Director for Life Zubin Mehta. In 1960, Mehta was ready to accept Bernstein’s offer to replace a trio of his assistants. Instead, a last-minute request to guest conduct the Montreal Symphony would lead to his appointment as its musical director and launch his career. When next they met, Mehta was a peer.

“I really admired Lenny tremendously,” Mehta writes in his autobiography, The Score of My Life. “All of us at the New York Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic miss him enormously.”

The next two years will ring with the music of Leonard Bernstein. Stay tuned for information about AFIPO group outings to various Bernstein celebrations around the United States.


Here are links to some of the special web pages where you can join the celebration:

Bernstein at 100

Promotional Video

Calendar of Events

Share your memories publicly

Background on Kadish


Photo Captions:

Top Right – Bernstein departing for Israel to assume his duties at the IPO. He is carrying recordings he made with American orchestras to present to the IPO Music Library, including Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Marc Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony, and Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat. September 17, 1948. Photograph source: Enell, Inc. (Music Division)

Bottom Left – On April 27, 1947, Bernstein conducted the first of nine concerts with the Palestine Symphony Orchestra at the conclusion the orchestra’s tenth anniversary season.

August 2017