Composer, impresario, Harvard lecturer, television personality, cultural icon and conductor, Leonard Bernstein is one of the most charismatic musicians of the 20th century. He conquered Broadway with such hits as "On the Town" and "West Side Story"; he introduced enormous numbers of people to classical music with his "Omnibus" and "Young People's Concerts" on television; and he extracted inspired performances from some of the world's best orchestras. Based on interviews with surviving family, friends and colleagues, as well as Bernstein's own rich legacy of letters and papers, this biography provides a portrait of a man full of contradictions. Constantly feeding his enormous appetite for the spotlight, Bernstein led a life emotionally complicated by his desperate need to be loved, squandering, his critics might charge, his seemingly inexhausible talent and energy. Humphrey Burton, an award-winning broadcaster and journalist, was a friend and colleague of Bernstein's for the last 30 years of his life.
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A sensitive, well-balanced account of the great American maestro's life and works. Biographer Burton, for over 20 years Bernstein's television and video director, neatly avoids most of the pitfalls that wait for a close friend who attempts an authoritative portrait within a very few years of the death of its subject. While generally admiring Bernstein the creative dynamo, Burton rarely gushes, unlike at least one other recent memoirist. Nor does he trash Bernstein for his emotional and sexual excesses; indeed, Burton deals with the intimate side of Bernstein's life, particularly his homosexuality and his guilt at the rift it caused between him and his wife, Felicia, during her last troubled years, with nonjudgmental candor and a lack of sensationalism. The core of the book is a straightforward chronological narrative. Into a lifetime scarcely longer than seven decades, Bernstein seemingly packed several lifetimes of composition (both "serious" and Broadway), conducting, and teaching. Even in a book of this length, the sheer amount of mental and physical activity described is hardly less exhausting to read about than it must have been to experience. Burton earns the reader's trust by declaring at the outset that the real Leonard Bernstein is to be found in his many recordings and videotaped performances; nonetheless, Burton unfailingly provides the context of each of Bernstein's own compositions (including ones left unfinished) and a survey of contemporaneous critical response (for instance, Mass, which Burton thinks is Bernstein's "most original work" from the point of view of musical form, was called "magnificent" and "stupendous" by certain leading critics, "pretentious and thin" by others). Burton would probably admit that the images of Bernstein the conductor and musical pedagogue are still so powerfully etched in our consciousness that an objective appraisal of Bernstein's own music is not yet possible. Simply the best of the Bernstein biographies so far. (Kirkus Reviews)