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Leonard Bernstein and the Youngest, Poorest Symphony in the World

August 25, 2016 by New York City Center

Leonard Bernstein rehearsing in City Center’s studios.

For three years in the 1940s, Leonard Bernstein led “the youngest, poorest symphony in the world” at New York City Center. Working without a salary, Bernstein brought a daring assortment of symphonic works to the masses: Marc Blitzstein and Alex North premiered new works, celebrity pals like Orson Welles, Benny Goodman, and Paul Wittgenstein made guest appearances, and the 75¢ ticket price attracted working stiffs who yelled “Hello, Lenny!” from the second balcony when their maestro came onstage. One critic called it a “love feast,” and Bernstein never forgot that love. “I had the best time of my life there,” he said in 1983. “I cut my teeth as a conductor there.” We decided to look back at Bernstein’s salad days at City Center, which began on his 27th birthday: August 25, 1945.

Leonard Bernstein wasn’t a superstitious man—his sole ritual was kissing Koussevitszky’s cufflinks before concerts—but he had every reason to believe in the voodoo power of birthdays. On the day Bernstein turned 27, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia made him an offer that would fulfill one of his giddiest dreams: a chance to lead his own orchestra, the New York City Symphony.

It had been a long hustle for Bernstein. He’d been a national celebrity for nearly two years—On the Town was a Broadway smash, bobby soxers kept prank-calling his apartment, and The New York Times admiringly noted his fondness for “sweaters, pin-stripe suits, and bow ties”—but as far as leading a symphony of his own, it was no dice. He’d been rejected by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Rochester Philharmonic, for nebulous reasons that Bernstein privately chalked up to anti-Semitism and homophobia. On some level, it was a matter of propriety. What staid symphony could embrace a conductor who danced on tabletops, doted on boogie-woogie, and composed haunting elegies for the family dogs?

Leonard Bernstein at home in 1947, photographed by Victor Kraft. (Library of Congress Music Division)

As it turned out, City Center was the ideal home for Bernstein’s high-low sensibility. Two years earlier, the building had been rescued from the wrecking ball by La Guardia, who declared it the “People’s Theater” and presided over a slate of affordable programming that ranged from operas to Our Town to Orson Welles lectures. City Center’s audience was rowdy and young—the average age was a now-unthinkable 21—and included a few bohemian regulars who came to the ballet barefoot. Their enthusiasm took a physical toll on the theater. A month after Bernstein’s City Center debut, the critic George Jean Nathan carped, “It is not easy to drink in delicate poetry sitting in a chair whose burst springs assault nether regions already imbedded in souvenirs of chewing gum”. Of course, that was the point of City Center: to bring poetry to New Yorkers who’d been subsisting on chewing gum.

Bernstein believed in that mission wholeheartedly. When his appointment was announced on August 28, 1945—he was to replace the departing Leopold Stokowski—Bernstein told the press, “There should be a fountain-head in the city for music and art, and it seems to me that the City Center fills that need.” In the civic spirit, Bernstein was said to be donating his conducting services for free. The truth was less press-friendly: City Center had convinced an anonymous donor to shell out $25,000 for Bernstein’s expenses.

Bernstein was slightly fidgety during the press conference, aware that he barely had a month to pull together a season and a symphony. After chucking two-thirds of Stokowski’s musicians, he began auditioning replacements in his penthouse. Over 300 musicians made the schlep, and Bernstein took pains to hire war veterans, minorities, and people who were “young enough, eager enough to be still in a self-critical stage,” as he put it. “The difference between super professional musicians and the student who never stops examining himself is, I believe, what will make for an alive organization.”

The first program of the Symphony’s 1945-1946 season—a trio of works by Copland, Shostakovich, and Brahms—was scheduled for October 8. Bernstein had a fever that night, but it only seemed to heighten his pre-show delirium. “Tonight’s my big, big night,” he wrote his friend David Oppenheim. “I’m a nervous wreck, but the orchestra is so fabulous and excited and young and interested and in tune and precise and enthusiastic, etc., etc., that if it’s not a hit tonight I won’t understand it.”

The concert was broadcast live on WNYC, and the recording is a fascinating memento of a time when Leonard Bernstein needed to be introduced. The rookie maestro was 27 years old, explained the announcer, “which makes him almost an infant as far as being a conductor is concerned.” He encouragingly pointed out that Copland’s piece—the ebullient Outdoor Overture—was “the sort of material you could walk out of the concert hall whistling.” Of course, imbuing classical music with the raw immediacy of pop was one of Bernstein’s singular gifts; on the morning of the concert, Copland had attended the Symphony’s rehearsal and told his friend, “At last we have American Brahms—lyrical, like a popular song.”

Click here to listen to the WNYC broadcast:

Copland wasn’t alone in kvelling about the Symphony’s sound. “New life was certainly injected into the orchestral world,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle of Bernstein’s City Center debut. “Mr. Bernstein created a kind of white heat.” Time magazine marveled over the youth of the musicians, noting that its ranks contained a dozen servicemen, with “only one slightly bald head in the whole orchestra.” City Center’s advertising copy followed suit, touting the ages of twentysomething guest soloists like Isaac Stern and Samson François.

The notion of a symphony in which young musicians play works charged with contemporary relevance seems a little surreal today, but that’s precisely what the Symphony did under Bernstein. April 1946 saw the world premiere of Marc Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony, a semi-propagandistic ode to human flight narrated by Orson Welles. That November, Bernstein conducted an evening of new works composed by World War II veterans, including a piece written by Alex North and performed by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. “We did an adventurous repertory for those who were sick and tired of the [New York] Philharmonic’s standards,” Bernstein later recalled. In just three years, his Symphony managed to perform 50 pieces written in the 20th century, including works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Bartók that Bernstein felt had “dropped dead” after their premieres and deserved to be heard again.

Leonard Bernstein conducting at City Center (left) and consulting with his concertmaster Werner Lywen on City Center’s roof (right). (Library of Congress Music Division; Leo Friedman, courtesy of

Once the first careless rapture of Bernstein mania had faded, critics began sniping about his flamboyant physicality. Virgil Thomson compared Bernstein to a shadow-boxer and wrote that he “would be a delightful conductor if he could ever forget during one piece, or even during one movement of a piece, that he is considered by Warner Bros. to be a potential film-star.” During his time at City Center, Bernstein actually was juggling film offers, along with an endless stream of commissions, guest-composing gigs, and interviews with the press. Sometimes he fled to City Center’s roof, overwhelmed by phone calls. While a handful of musicians resented Bernstein’s ever-rising celebrity—Symphony violinist Everett Lee remembers getting into “a big fight with a couple of musicians who called him an arrogant son of a bitch”—it was largely a “love feast.”

Bernstein was chummy and affectionate with his players (he referred to them all as “kids”), and encouraged them to share their personal problems during rehearsal breaks. Several probably complained about their salaries—they were paid a paltry $500 a season before taxes—and Bernstein soon became determined to dispel the myth that the orchestra was city-funded. “We haven’t a penny from the city,” Bernstein told the press in November 1945, explaining that La Guardia had arranged to waive rent for the building but did little else to subsidize City Center’s programs. “We are the youngest, poorest orchestra in the world, and the biggest stink I can make is not a big enough stink for me,” he added.

Leonard Bernstein at City Center in September 1945, photographed by Ruth Orkin. (Library of Congress Music Division)

Bernstein’s stink didn’t do much good—but starting on February 5, 1946, he had other concerns. The Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre was at City Center that night, and after seeing Bernstein conduct Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, she “became convinced that she would marry him,” according to Bernstein biographer Meryle Secrest. “She told [pianist Claudio] Arrau and her other friends, and they laughed. She replied, ‘You’ll see.’” That night, Bernstein and Montealegre met at an after-party at Claudio Arrau’s house and spent hours talking. They went home together, and after a long, turbulent courtship, were married in 1951.

The music world kept a beady eye on Bernstein’s programming choices; when he announced the Symphony’s 1947-1948 season, Copland complained that he “couldn’t find a single Amer. work mentioned.” Perhaps in response, Bernstein decided to close the season with a three-night revival of Marc Blitzstein’s blistering anti-capitalist musical The Cradle Will Rock. In many ways, it was an Encores! show forty years before Encores! existed: Cradle was presented in concert form, without scenery or costumes; Bernstein himself announced the scenes while the onstage symphony played Blitzstein’s original orchestrations. Laden with stars such as Shirley Booth and Muriel Smith, the production delighted audiences and quickly transferred to Broadway. “Something close to an earthquake hit Fifty-fifth Street,” the music critic Alan Rich wrote of City Center’s Cradle, decades after the fact. “I learned that night what it meant to be part of a standing, cheering audience that simply would not go home.”

Howard Da Silva, Muriel Smith, and Leonard Bernstein in a publicity shot for City Center’s 1947 concert revival of The Cradle Will Rock. (Photofest)

The Cradle Will Rock would prove to be the Symphony’s swan song. Bernstein had hoped to expand the orchestra in its fourth season, but was constrained by the lack of city funding. The Local 802 musicians’ union had ponied up $10,000 to subsidize the Symphony’s third season, but in early 1948, the union announced that it would be unable to repeat the gift. A despairing Bernstein sent his resignation letter to The New York Times, privately hoping that a donor would step in. Nobody did—and the grand experiment of the New York City Symphony came to an end. (In a 1951 letter, Bernstein floated the possibility of returning to “City Center on a big basis, [with Constance Hope] as business manager and promoter, and I as allover director. I find this a thrilling idea, and so does Felicia, and maybe something will come of it.” Nothing did.)

To say that Bernstein “rebounded” after the death of the New York City Symphony would be a hilarious understatement. Still, for the few who still remember, his days at City Center were peerless. “When he was with the City Center orchestra, it was the most exciting, the most vital that I ever heard from him on the podium,” recalled New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg. For Bernstein, the Symphony’s unique power came from its musicians. “So much love for music makes them sound as no other organization,” he wrote.

Matt Weinstock edits the publications at New York City Center.