As a teenager, I listened to West Side Story repeatedly enough to really get the social justice message of the lyrics – by Stephen Sondheim with Bernstein’s score, and of course the latter was totally on board with the themes on racism, addiction, poverty, and violence. I was a marching band kid with plenty of exposure to classical and other music through piano lessons, school, and my parents’ record collection. The latter also contained the red-jacketed West Side Story, whose content was racier than they probably realized. Anyway, I really went for the mix of jazz, Latino, and modern.
I finally saw WSS onscreen in college, but my next major “encounter” with Bernstein came when I, still delirious over the fall of East Bloc communism, saw clips of his conducting Beethoven’s 9th at the Berlin Wall on New Year’s 1990. I’d recently come to appreciate that work, thought this paean to humanity the perfect way to celebrate the reunion of East and West, and so was enthralled with Bernstein once again.
Then I departed for Europe for the first time, headed to Czechoslovakia by way of Vienna, to teach English in this newly free part of Europe. As the plane began descending, CNN came on the projection screen and announced Bernstein’s death. I couldn’t help but feel their was some significance to it all, that Bernstein’s “end” and my new beginning were interconnected.
So here’s to you, Leonard Bernstein: may you continue to inspire those seek to unite with music – and by countless other means!