Carnegie Hall+ Mines the Archives for Leonard Bernstein Footage

Curated by the Hall, the Collection includes an extensive collection of live performances, broadcasts, and documentaries

By Laurence VittesFrom the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

More so than 2022’s depiction of a fictional conductor named Lydia Tár, last year’s Maestro biopic of Leonard Bernstein has mobilized interest in classical music and in ways befitting the stature of a man and musician who made classical music cool. Inspired by the 80th anniversary of Bernstein’s first appearance at Carnegie Hall and taking full advantage of film’s presence and popularity, the premium subscription video-on-demand channel Carnegie Hall+ has started out the year by focusing its attention on exploring the invaluable archive of Bernstein materials available through Unitel’s vast catalog of classical music for audiovisual media.

Curated by the Hall, the Leonard Bernstein Collection captures the charismatic intensity of the performer and the mood of the times through which he lived, with an extensive collection of live performances, broadcasts, and documentaries. There’s a newly remastered performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in London’s Ely Cathedral that was featured prominently in Maestro. A sexy Rhapsody in Blue has Bernstein at the keyboard channeling Gershwin, who was one of his idols; a Schumann Cello Concerto with Mstislav Rostropovich backed by the Orchestre National de France is an ultra-Romantic ménage à trois; and an electrifying Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood marks the 100th anniversary of his beloved mentor Serge Koussevitzky’s birth. Complete Beethoven and Mahler cycles with the Vienna Philharmonic recorded live in Vienna invite dangerous bingeing.

Documentaries include an inside look at the creation of West Side Story and the historic Christmas Day performance in 1989 of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s the 1984 BBC documentary The Little Drummer Boy: Bernstein on Mahler, and Leonard Bernstein: A Genius Divided, providing substantial zeitgeist that Maestro lightly skates. For a deeper, more serious look at the musical, political, and personal controversies, the selection of letters edited by Nigel Simeone is a good place to start.


Upcoming highlights for 2024 will include selections from Bernstein’s trailblazing Young People’s Concerts, which made a tremendous impact when first broadcast on Omnibus in 1958 in a television studio on which the floor had been painted with a huge blow-up of the first page of the score to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Launched in 2021, Carnegie Hall+ was created through a partnership between Carnegie Hall and Unitel. Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director, Clive Gillinson, explains, “Hundreds of hours of programming have been specially curated with all arts lovers—from casual viewers to aficionados—in mind, all at an affordable price. When watching the channel, in addition to the Bernstein Collection, subscribers can journey to the Salzburg Festival in Austria, the BBC Proms in London, or watch the Vienna Philharmonic perform in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, plus much more.”

And what doesn’t appear on archival footage persists in the public consciousness through letters and memoirs. Kenneth Goldsmith of the Mirecourt Trio and the Shepherd School of Music, who studied under Toscanini’s concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff, played for Bernstein at the Casals Festival in 1965 and recounted in a memoir how the conductor “played jazz backstage at the rehearsals with several orchestra members.” 


Three years earlier, Goldsmith had attended one of the last New York Philharmonic Sunday afternoon matinees in Carnegie Hall, before Lincoln Center opened in 1962. “The acoustics were magnificent. There were students (tickets were $.50) and dowagers and older couples who were enjoying a cultural outing in the afternoon. It was fascinating to see Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and limousines parked three-deep around Carnegie!

“At that time Leonard Bernstein was determined to bring modern and avant-garde composers to his audiences, even to this rather staid Sunday afternoon audience, and he had no mercy! On one Sunday that I attended, he programmed a rather long, insistently dissonant, and very loud work! At the midpoint of the work, there was a gigantic crescendo, with an abrupt cut-off… and a woman’s voice was heard announcing in a clarion voice, ‘Why, I always fry mine in lard!’” Goldsmith claimed that “this excellent culinary advice was reported with glee by the critics of both the Times and the Post.”


As conflicted as Bernstein was about being accepted as a serious composer, the enduring success of his operas and operettas recall Brahms saying that he would have given anything to have written Johann Strauss Jr.’s The Blue Danube waltz. In this case, it was Bernstein’s younger colleague Carlos Kleiber who wrote to him in 1989 on behalf of his 24-year-old son: “Here is a CD of West Side Story. Do you by any means think it possible for you to sign the first CD of the set (on the label side with an indelible thingamajig) with a dedication to Marko Kleiber?”

And it was Miles Davis who wrote to Bernstein in 1988, “I think about the time when my wife, who was the lead dancer in West Side Story, said to me, ‘Leonard wants you to think about playing this music,’ and I replied, ‘How am I going to play this corny shit?’ Needless to say, it turned out to be a classic. You are one of America’s true geniuses, along with Monk, Gillespie, Mingus, and Parker.”