Leonard Bernstein’s career was multifaceted, but two of his primary pursuits stood out the most: composing and conducting.
It was a constant tug of war, and it might have been easier if Bernstein had looked at conducting simply as a way to make money to support his first love — composing.
But the truth was that he loved to conduct every bit as much as he wanted to compose. In fact, on the podium the two often merged, as Bernstein the conductor felt he “became” the composer of the work he led. And that was always strongest when he felt a direct connection to the composer, whether Gershwin, Bach or Mahler.
"The conductor must not only make his orchestra play, he must make then want to play," Bernstein said in "The Art of Conducting." "He must exalt them, lift them, start their adrenalin pouring, either through cajoling or demanding or raging. But, however he does it, he must make the orchestra love the music as he loves it."
That personal connection was particularly important in Bernstein’s passion for the music of Gustav Mahler, a composer whose reputation had fallen by the wayside since his death in 1911.
Like Bernstein, Mahler was a conductor whose primary passion was composing, which limited him to writing music between conducting engagements. Both men even led the same symphony: the New York Philharmonic.
Bernstein saw in Mahler a desire he shared, to stretch the idea of what a symphony could be. He introduced Mahler to concert audiences from New York to Vienna and recorded all of his symphonies twice.
Bernstein also championed American composers such as George Gershwin, William Schuman, and his close friend Aaron Copland by programming and recording their works as well.
As conductor, Bernstein often became so absorbed in the music that he would zone out. Biographer Kenneth LaFave recalls Bernstein leading students through a portion of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. When the music ended, Bernstein looked out at the orchestra as if coming out of a swoon. With utter sincerity he asked, “Tell me, what did I do?”
Once again, he was creating music in the moment and communicating that to the orchestra.
"When everybody is sharing his feeling — when 100 men are sharing the same feelings exactly, simultaneously, responding as one to each rise and fall of the music, to each point of arrival and departure, to each little inner pulse — when all that is happening, there is a human identify of feeling that has no equal elsewhere."
Bernstein had many loves in his life, but ultimately none was greater than his love of music. And nowhere was that love more on display than when he stood in front of an orchestra.