The man with too little time


LEONARD BERNSTEIN had 72 years of life. They weren't nearly enough for all he wanted to do, all he could have done, all he should have done.

"Should" because talents like his impose enormous responsibilities.

If he didn't wholly fulfill all of them the fault wasn't his. Time got in the way.

Some people say that Leonard Bernstein spread himself too thin. But what would they have had him give up? A fine pianist, he turned himself into a remarkable conductor.

An extraordinary interpreter of European composers, he became one of the most interesting of American composers.

A creator of "serious" concert music, he was also the creator of the score for "West Side Story," among the most enduring of all American musicals.

As a teacher, he was unmatched.

"I started taking piano lessons when I was a little kid, just about the same time I started watching the Young People's Concerts on television," a fan remembers. "My piano teacher taught me how to read and play notes, but it was Bernstein who taught me to love music."

Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Mass., schooled at Boston Latin and Harvard University, and studied conducting at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

But he is inseparable from New York, and not simply because he achieved his first fame in that city and eventually became the youngest music director ever engaged by the New York Philharmonic. Much of his music is New York's.

"New York, New York, it's a hell of a town/The Bronx is up and the Battery's down" is the marvelous roar that opens "On the Town." To take the IRT subway downtown is to have "Here we are, Christopher Street/Right in the heart of Greenwich Village" from "Wonderful Town" bouncing in one's ear.

And it's not necessary to know either the title or the lyrics of "West Side Story" to realize that those sounds celebrate this city. New York is in that score as surely as it is in George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

"I don't want to spend my life, as Toscanini did, studying and restudying the same 50 pieces of music," he once wrote.

"It would bore me to death. I want to conduct. I want to play the piano. I want to write for Hollywood. I want to write symphonic music. I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician."

America discovered that musician, through radio, on the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1943, when the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic took over for an ailing Bruno Walter.

For the next 47 years Leonard Bernstein was an important part of America's culture, and its conscience.

Forty-seven years: not long enough.

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