Leonard Bernstein: five things to know

A towering figure of 20th-century classical music, Leonard Bernstein is the subject of Bradley Cooper’s much-anticipated biopic “Maestro”, premiering at Venice.

One of the best-known composers and conductors of all time with a musical range spanning from classical and jazz to rock and Latino, Bernstein was also a virtuoso pianist and even a television star.

Here are five key things about the American maestro, who died in 1990 at the age of 72:

– ‘West Side Story’ –
Arriving in New York freshly graduated from Harvard, the son of Ukrainian Jews who fled the pogroms shot to stardom in the United States in just three years, at the age of 25.

He then assured his place in history in 1957 by composing the musical “West Side Story”, transposing Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to the gangs of New York’s Upper West Side.

An instant hit on Broadway, it was quickly adapted to the screen and triumphed at the Oscars.

“West Side Story” brought Bernstein worldwide acclaim and a year later he took charge of the prestigious New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

– Gay: open secret –
Handsome and charismatic, “Lenny” was also a ladies’ man, or seemed to be. He formed a star Manhattan couple with Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre and they had three children.

But the reality was more complicated.

Just months after their marriage his wife told him he was gay and she was ready to accept it, because she loved him.

Struggling with his double life, Bernstein consulted a psychologist who claimed to “cure” gay people.

After 25 years of marriage, during which he had several affairs, they divorced, and Bernstein went on to pursue openly gay relationships.

– On the FBI watch list –
After the maestro died it was revealed the FBI had been compiling a thick file of 800 pages on him for years.

All his life he was politically active, which drew the attention of the US intelligence services.

In the 1950s, in the midst of the McCarthyite witch hunt, Bernstein’s name even appeared on an official FBI list of individuals suspected of being affiliated with a communist organisation.

He opposed the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movements. In 1970 he caused a scandal by organising a fundraiser at his home for the Black Panthers.

And he was even suspected of slipping coded messages into the Latin texts of one of his works.

– Berlin wall –
New York, Amsterdam, Vienna, Tel Aviv, Sapporo… In his career Bernstein conducted orchestras in America, Europe and Asia.

One of his most famous performances on the podium came on December 25, 1989 in Berlin, shortly after the fall of the wall dividing the city.

He conducted the famous concert of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Konzerthaus (then the Schauspielhaus) bringing together musicians worldwide.

– That nose –
“It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose,” wrote Jamie, Alexander and Nina Bernstein in a statement on social media in August.

The Bernstein children were responding to a controversy that broke out after the release of the “Maestro” trailer, showing Cooper, who plays Bernstein, wearing a fake nose.

Some critics said the decision to use the prosthetic played up to Jewish stereotypes and dubbed it “Jewface”, in reference to the historic “Blackface” practice of non-Black performers darkening their faces for roles. (AFP)

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