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Leonard Bernstein at the Skirball: 10 objects from the life of a genius

Leonard Bernstein at the Skirball: 10 objects from the life of a genius
"Leonard Bernstein at 100," curated by the Grammy Museum and on view at the Skirball Cultural Center, contains more than 150 objects from the composer and conductor's life. (Eugene Garcia / EPA-EFE / REX / Shutte)

The Leonard Bernstein Office says that more than 2,300 events have been planned worldwide to celebrate the centennial of the composer and conductor — the vast majority of them only touching on some aspect of this protean figure, whose reputation seems to grow with each passing year.

Here in Los Angeles, however, you can experience much of Bernstein’s world in one place: The Skirball Cultural Center is hosting the “Leonard Bernstein at 100” exhibition through Sept. 2, a week after his 100th birthday.

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Assembled by the Grammy Museum in its first project honoring a classical musician, the exhibition has film clips, scores, heirlooms and more.

“I had a lot to choose from,” says Robert Santelli, founding director of the Grammy Museum. “I used the strategy I always use: Find pieces that help push the narrative. So if there was a particular artifact that would do that, that’s the one I would consider.”

Santelli went to sources like the New York Philharmonic, Indiana and Brandeis universities, the New York Public Library and the Bernstein family. Bernstein’s son Alexander was particularly helpful.

What accomplishment does Alexander think his father would be most proud of?

“The fact he didn’t give in to the idea that he had to do one thing and that he was spreading himself too thin,” Alexander Bernstein says. “People told him that constantly, that he was devaluing the work because he was doing so many things. But he stuck to his guns and managed to do it all spectacularly.”

The Skirball has more than 150 objects on view. We’ve narrowed that down to this top 10 list:

Bernstein’s first piano

It came into his life around age 10. “His Aunt Clara was moving into a smaller place and she had nowhere to put her upright piano,” Alexander Bernstein says. “She kind of left it in the hallway of my dad’s parents’ house. The story goes that there was this moment when he touched a key and made a sound. He almost laughed to himself; that’s a bad Hollywood movie moment, this absolute revelation of touching the piano. Within weeks, he was playing tunes and inventing harmonies.”

Bernstein's first piano, an upright he began playing around ago 10.
Bernstein's first piano, an upright he began playing around ago 10. (Richard S. Ginell)

Grades

Check out Bernstein’s report cards from Harvard University as well as from the Curtis Institute, where he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner, who went on to become music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It might be comforting to know that Bernstein did not get straight As from Harvard. There’s even a C in a music class.

Detail of Bernstein's Harvard report card, which notes a C in music.
Detail of Bernstein's Harvard report card, which notes a C in music. (Richard S. Ginell)

Cuff links

Bernstein’s teacher and surrogate father figure Serge Koussevitzky gave him cuff links that would become famous. After Koussevitzky’s death in 1951, Bernstein had a ritual of kissing the cuff links just before heading out to the podium. They are now owned by Alexander, who lent them to the exhibition.

Bernstein in 1982 with those cuff links at the Hollywood Bowl.
Bernstein in 1982 with those cuff links at the Hollywood Bowl. (Los Angeles Times)

‘West Side Story’ desk

Scattered upon the utilitarian desk upon which Bernstein wrote the score for “West Side Story” are manuscripts of songs that were cut from the 1957 Broadway opening. That includes “Mix!” for the Jets gang, later adapted for his choral work “Chichester Psalms.”

Bernstein score for "Mix!"
Bernstein score for "Mix!" (Richard S. Ginell)

Sound booth

You can sing along with “America” from “West Side Story” in a sound booth. Rehearse before pushing the record button, then hear yourself over the soundtrack. It’s a tough tune to sing. (A button on the screen during playback is playfully marked “Make It Stop.”) But don’t feel bad if you can’t keep up. Lenny couldn’t sing either — one of his biggest regrets.

A sound booth where visitors can sing "America" from "West Side Story."
A sound booth where visitors can sing "America" from "West Side Story." (Skirball Cultural Center)

Play maestro

In “Step Up and Be the Conductor,” you can lead the opening minutes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Lenny showing the way. Your left hand controls the volume and the right hand controls the tempo. I found that the left hand commands worked fine, but the right hand did not really alter the speed. Still, it’s fun to imitate the maestro.

Mahler score

On Bernstein’s conducting score for Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, notice the bumper sticker that he inserted on the first page. “Mahler Grooves” perfectly evokes the spirit of the Mahler boom of the 1960s.

Bernstein's score for Mahler's Sixth Symphony, with the bumper sticker.
Bernstein's score for Mahler's Sixth Symphony, with the bumper sticker. (Skirball Cultural Center)

FBI notes

Pages from the extensive FBI file on Bernstein’s political activities were obtained through the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. Nearby, you’ll see a copy of the late Tom Wolfe’s book “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” which contains the essay that skewered a fundraiser in Bernstein’s apartment for the legal defense of Black Panthers. That misunderstood gathering subjected Bernstein to much ridicule.

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Pages from the FBI file on Berstein.
Pages from the FBI file on Berstein. (Skirball Cultural Center)

The baton Dudamel broke

Gustavo Dudamel says on video that he was offered the use of Bernstein’s baton for his New York Philharmonic debut in 2007, but when he got to the last frenetic 15 seconds of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, the baton suddenly snapped in two.

Leonard Bernstein's baton, broken by Gustavo Dudamel during a performance.
Leonard Bernstein's baton, broken by Gustavo Dudamel during a performance. (Leonard Bernstein Office)

A bit of the Berlin Wall

Bernstein chiseled a fragment of the Berlin Wall shortly before he gave one of the last significant concerts of his life, a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on Christmas Day 1989 with an international orchestra from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Look closely and notice “Lenny” in red letters.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Leonard Bernstein at 100’

Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, through Sept. 2

Admission: $7-$12

Event: “Late Night With Leonard Bernstein,” with daughter Jamie Bernstein, video and audio excerpts, rare photographs and live performances by soprano Amy Burton and pianists Michael Boriskin and John Musto. 7:30 p.m. June 24. $35 (includes admission to the exhibition)

Information: (310) 440-4500, skirball.org

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