On the centennial of his birth, the Skirball presents Leonard Bernstein at 100—a celebration of the life and work of Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990), the great American composer and conductor who dedicated his life to making classical music a vibrant part of American culture. Organized by the GRAMMY Museum® and curated by its founding executive director and renowned music historian, Robert Santelli, Leonard Bernstein at 100 is the official exhibition of the Bernstein centennial celebrations, which will include events at numerous performing arts venues around the United States. Encompassing half a century of activity by the “Renaissance man of American music,” as his New York Times obituary dubbed Bernstein, the exhibition is the most comprehensive retrospective of Bernstein’s life and career ever staged in a museum setting.
As a composer, Bernstein embodied the syncretism of the American musical tradition. Blending his Jewish roots with the Western classical canon, jazz, and popular music, he crossed genre lines and wrote landmark scores for musical theater (West Side Story, Candide) and film (On the Waterfront), as well as producing a large body of symphonic and choral works. As a conductor, Bernstein defined the profession for decades both at home and abroad. The first American-born principal conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, he dazzled the public with the passionate intensity of his performances while promoting works by a remarkably wide array of composers, including Gustav Mahler, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and George Gershwin, among many others. As an educator, Bernstein pioneered the use of television as a medium that could offer an accessible yet sophisticated musical education to the widest possible audience. Through his Young People’s Concerts, he empowered thousands of children to find classical music relatable and exciting and influenced a generation of young musicians. Finally, as a citizen engaged with the moral questions of his day, Bernstein maintained a life-long commitment to social justice, using his celebrity to bring attention and support to a number of causes.
To explore the many facets of Bernstein’s life, this exhibition of over 150 objects will include photographs, personal items, papers, scores, correspondence, costumes, furniture, and audio and video recordings. Featured objects on display will include Bernstein’s conductor baton, his first childhood piano, the desk used to compose West Side Story, handwritten score sheets for songs from West Side Story, including “America,” “Tonight,” and “Maria,” and Bernstein’s handwritten Harvard study notebook from 1939. In addition to the objects and multimedia presentations, the exhibition includes a number of interactive displays designed to offer hands-on insights into Bernstein’s creative process and legacy. Two listening stations will enable visitors to explore some of Bernstein’s most noted works, as well as his most important musical influences. A vocal booth gives visitors the chance to sing lead in West Side Story. One interactive breaks down the parts of a symphony while another gives visitors the opportunity to step into Bernstein’s conducting shoes.