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Leonard Bernstein’s 95th Birthday

Guest Blogger: Steve J. Sherman, author of Leonard Bernstein At Work: His Final Years, 1984-1990in honor of Leonard Bernstein.

Leonard Bernstein at 95 by Steve J. Sherman

Sunday August 25, 2013, would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 95th birthday. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone from this earth for 23 years already, and hard to imagine that his star could continue to rise even higher than the iconic international superstar status he achieved by the end of his life. But indeed, with each passing year, more and more people are discovering the genius and joy of Leonard Bernstein and his music; the creations of his brilliant mind and passionate heart, fueled by his mad desire to soar dangerously close to the sun as he searched for meaning here on earth…

In honor of this day and this man, I am delighted to share with you this excerpt from the Preamble I wrote for my book of Bernstein photographs and memories, Leonard Bernstein At Work: His Final Years 1984-1990 (Amadeus 2010). Happy birthday Lenny…

Photographing Lenny was always an event. There was always a buzz in the air, an excitement, an anticipation. When Lenny was in the house, something was going to happen.

You could feel it. Lenny would walk out on stage to begin a rehearsal, and everyone would stop talking or tuning, and focus on him. There were always detours on his way to the podium, saying hi to old friends or new ones, with a warm smile, a reminiscence, and if not a hug, then a hand on an arm or a one-handed one-squeeze shoulder massage – he was a very tactile person. But once he hit the podium, he made it clear that he expected 100% from each and every musician on the stage. He didn’t have to say it — he simply led by example.

He gave all of himself, and allowed his love, his extreme passion, his raw charisma, his powerful convictions, to guide his heart and mind. His fresh and sincere exhilaration for the music, and his insatiable lust for and curiosity about life, infected everyone in the room. As a result we gave him 150% back… and the results are legendary.

I say we, as if I were one of the musicians. But I was also on stage (or hovering close by), and I found myself equally compelled to rise above my limits, and break through my upper expectations…

And that was good. I was never able to let my guard down for a second – my concentration had to be complete if I wanted to follow where he was going – his energy could burst forth suddenly, and then recede just as quickly. He could conduct with only his shoulders, or his eyebrows, or his feet as he gently bounced his otherwise still body… Whatever it was, it was total immersion.

I think my photos of Lenny are just a bit better than most everything else in my archive. And I wish I could claim credit for that. But I can’t – it was simply the way things had to be when photographing Lenny.

Steve J. Sherman

Leonard Bernstein At Work

Leonard Bernstein is internationally renowned as one of the most significant composers, musical inspirations, and creative minds of the 20th century. In addition, many consider him to be the greatest American conductor of all time. He is legendary, not only for his brilliant music-making but equally for his extreme passion, raw charisma, powerful convictions, and insatiable appetite for life.

This remarkable photographic essay of Leonard Bernstein during the last six years of his life gives us rare insight into the disparate, sometimes vastly conflicting elements that shaped his work and deeply influenced everyone who was drawn into his inner world. It contains approximately 200 black-and-white photographs, most previously unpublished, taken on and off stage during 20 different events or concerts, along with personal comments and remembrances from over 50 of his colleagues, friends, and relatives.

The foreword is by Hollywood superstar Lauren Bacall, the preface by Jamie Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s eldest daughter), and the introduction by James M. Keller, Leonard Bernstein scholar-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic.

These vivid images reveal Leonard Bernstein at work in his final years, as mortality encroached upon his unrelenting energy and indefatigable creative genius.