At a time when classical music received nearly as much coverage as professional sports in the popular press, it was major news indeed when an unknown 25-year-old led the nation’s most important symphony orchestra in a Carnegie Hall concert broadcast live to a radio audience in the millions.
For The New York Times, it was a story worthy of front-page coverage: “Young Aide Leads Philharmonic, Steps In When Bruno Walter Is Ill,” read the headline. The date was November 15, 1943, and the Page 1 music story in The New York Times that day was of the dramatic public debut of the young conductor Leonard Bernstein, who had led the New York Philharmonic brilliantly in the previous day’s performance as a last-minute stand-in for the group’s regular conductor.
Born and raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bernstein was a prodigy whose musical awakening came at the age of 10 when an aunt enmeshed in divorce proceedings sent her upright piano to his parents’ house for storage. As Bernstein told the story, he took one look at the instrument, hit the keys and then proclaimed, “Ma, I want lessons!” From the very beginning, it seems, Leonard Bernstein displayed the kind of exuberance that would characterize his work as a conductor even many decades later. As the Times music critic, Olin Downes, said in his review of Bernstein’s unexpected debut published on this day in 1943, “Mr. Bernstein advanced to the podium with the unfeigned eagerness and communicative emotion of his years.”
Bernstein’s debut helped speed his move into the top ranks of American symphonic conductors, and it made make him famous even among casual classical music fans, thanks to glowing press coverage and to the live national radio broadcast of the performance. Over the next 14 years, Bernstein’s stature grew even greater, not only as a conductor known especially for promoting the works of American composers like Charles Ives and Aaron Copeland, but also as a composer and popular television personality. By the time he took over as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, he had already written music for On The Town, Candide and West Side Story, among many other works for stage and orchestra, and he had gained a high level of popular recognition through his appearances on the CBS television variety show Omnibus, which gave rise to his enormously popular series of televised Young People’s Concerts in the late-1950s and 1960s.