Leonard Bernstein, Gifted Composer and Passionate Maestro, Dead at 72
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Leonard Bernstein, Gifted Composer and Passionate Maestro, Dead at 72

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Leonard Bernstein, one of the most gifted conductors, composers and pianists in American history who also epitomized the Jewish success story, died here Sunday night of a heart attack in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 72.

His death came just five days after he announced his retirement due to health problems.

Bernstein, who at the age of 40 became the youngest music director ever engaged by the New York Philharmonic, was once described as a “restless maestro” because of his extraordinary ability to move among roles as conductor, composer of classical and popular music, television performer and teacher.

Bernstein was known for his love and commitment to Israel. And he occupied a warm spot in the hearts of Israelis ever since his frequent visits began in the early days of the state.

The intense and passionate conductor was born in Lawrence, Mass., on Aug. 25, 1918. His early love for music was frowned upon by his parents, both Jewish immigrants. His father, Sam, a talmudic scholar, hoped Leonard would join his successful cosmetic business.

Bernstein demanded piano lessons at age 10, after a divorced aunt stored a piano with the family. His early education and Bar Mitzvah took place at Temple Mishkan Tefillah in Massachusetts, where Bernstein performed for all the school events.

He retained a lifelong respect for Jewish culture. His “Jeremiah” and “Kaddish” symphonies, the “Chichester Psalms” and several other works were founded on biblical themes.

In an appreciation message broadcast Monday in Israel, Zubin Mehta, musical director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, termed Bernstein “not only a great composer, pianist and conductor, but possibly even more a great music educator through some 100 educational concerts for young people” broadcast in the United States.


Bernstein served as musical adviser to the Israel Philharmonic for the 1948-49 season. While traveling through Israel, he entertained members of the Palmach from the back of a truck in the Negev desert.

During the War of Independence in October 1948, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Jerusalem’s old Edison Theater.

Toward the end of the first movement, machine gun fire from the Old City, held by the Jordanian Legion, erupted and continued intermittently through the rest of the symphony.

According to an audience member, neither Bernstein nor the orchestra missed a beat.

Israelis warmly remember Bernstein’s rush to Israel even before the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, to conduct the Israel Philharmonic in a festive performance at the amphitheater on Mount Scopus, freed from Jordanian control only days previously. He gave a thrilling performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, named by its composer as the “Renaissance.”

He delighted friends and the public at large by his use of as much Hebrew as he could muster, and by his warm appreciation of what Israel was trying to accomplish both within and outside the world of music.

Bernstein insisted that all his musical works that contained choral sections based on biblical texts be rendered in their original Hebrew when performed in Israel, regardless of whether or not he was conducting the performance.

A close friend recalled that they had dined together in a Tel Aviv restaurant one evening between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When the waiter approached him to ask his order, Bernstein had broken into song, rendering Jewish and Hasidic synagogue prayers and melodies.


Following a guest appearance with the Israel Philharmonic in 1976 in Tel Aviv, Bernstein was asked by the parents of Yadin Tannenbaum, a 19-year-old flutist killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, to write a work in memory of their son. “I never knew Tannenbaum,” said Bernstein, “but I know his spirit.”

The result of his efforts, “Halil,” premiered in New York in 1982 and was performed by Jean-Pierre Rampal and the Israel Philharmonic. Bernstein dedicated the work “to the spirit of Yadin and his fallen brothers.”

In 1988, at age 70, Bernstein was named conductor laureate of the Israeli Philharmonic.

Bernstein’s family announced that his funeral would be private. New York’s Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic have announced concerts in his memory, but plans for a memorial service have not yet been announced.

(JTA correspondents Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv and Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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