Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage's Leonard Bernstein Exhibit Speaks to Our Turbulent Times


  • Paul de Heck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
  • Leonard Bernstein conducting.
Ivy Weingram was working at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) when she and the staff there began to think of a way to commemorate the centennial of the birth of composer and musician Leonard Bernstein. The resulting exhibit, Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music, the first large-scale museum exhibition to show the connections between the conductor and composer’s life, Jewish identity and social activism, opened at NMAJH last year.

A remarkable exhibit that centers on Bernstein’s lifelong search for a solution to the “crisis of faith,” it opens today at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, where it remains on view until March 1.

“As the National Museum of Jewish History looked toward [Bernstein's] centennial, we thought about a way in which we could honor his legacy and life and work in a new way for the special occasion,” says Weingram during a media day at the Maltz Museum. “The exhibit focuses on what Bernstein said was the central theme in his original compositions, which was the search for a solution to the 20th century crisis of faith. We wanted to see how we would see that search play itself out in the choices he made as a conductor and in his work as an activist. We brought together the material culture and the films and the interactive opportunities to make the case for the crisis of faith. This is the first exhibit to explore his work through that lens.”

The political and social crises of Bernstein’s day clearly informed his work. Bernstein, who was born in 1918 and died in 1990, used the arts to express the “restlessness, anxiety, fear and hope” of an American Jew living through things such as World War II, the Holocaust and the Vietnam War.

“He lived through a period of the 20th century that would challenge every part of his identity — his political identity, his religious identity, his sexual orientation — and that led him to a real reckoning with his faith in the world,” says Weingram. “[He wanted to know] how could he use music and talents as a composer and a conductor and humanitarian and educator to guide himself and his world through the challenges of the 20th century.”

The exhibition shows how Bernstein broke racial barriers in his casting decisions for the musical On the Town and addressed America’s changing ideas about race and ethnicity in West Side Story.

“In a clip in the exhibit, he refers to understanding what anti-Semitism is because he grew up as a Jewish kid in Boston and would get beat up by the Irish kids,” Weingram says. “He understood outsider-ness in more than one way. He had questions about his own sexual orientation. He was Jewish. He attended Harvard as a Jewish student when there were quotas limiting the number of Jewish students.”

Bernstein wrote his Harvard thesis on how African-American music helped shape American music and was thinking about African-American culture and its influence on popular music from an early age.

The exhibition includes approximately 100 original artifacts and photographs, some never-before-exhibited in public. Artifact highlights include Bernstein’s piano, an annotated copy of Romeo and Juliet used for the development of West Side Story, the program for his Carnegie Hall debut, his conducting suit, and the easel he used for studying scores and composing.

“There’s around 100 artifacts that come from public and private collections,” says Weingram. “The Library of Congress holds the Leonard Bernstein Papers. They have something like 400,000 objects, and we whittled that down to about 12 items. The Bernstein family lent us objects that have never been seen before as well as his piano. We had a number of diehard Bernstein fans come out of the woodwork and offer their mementoes too.”

The exhibit highlights Bernstein’s Jewish heritage and includes a number of artifacts, including the mezuzah that hung in his studio, the Hebrew prayer book he carried with him when he traveled, his ketubah (Jewish marriage contact), his family’s Passover seder plate and the Talmud (book of Jewish law) his father gave him.

The exhibition also features a variety of films, sound installations, and interactive media. One film puts contemporary West Side Story references (culled from sources as wide-ranging as Flight of the Conchords and a Gap ad) next to scenes from the original work.

A state-of-the-art multimedia interactive display allows visitors "to explore the many layers to Bernstein’s original compositions," including how Bernstein the composer wove elements of synagogue music and his own family’s history into his works for film, Broadway and orchestra.

“It’s custom-technology created for this exhibition,” Weingram says of the exhibit's interactive element. “Visitors can unpack the many layers to nine of his original compositions, including his three symphonies and some of his Broadway work A lot of it has it has to do with distilling the origins of pieces and the motifs from Jewish music that he adapted.”

To communicate the significance of Bernstein’s visit to a Displaced Persons camp in Germany during Spring 1948, where he led an orchestra of Holocaust survivors, the exhibit features video testimonies from those who participated in that event.

An original film conveys the enduring impact of Bernstein’s MASS, a piece Bernstein composed in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination. Another original film features interviews with Bernstein mentees and fans, including Alec Baldwin (voice of the New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts and a classical music aficionado), actor Mandy Patinkin, playwright Tony Kushner and musician Wynton Marsalis.

“The Making of Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” an opening night discussion with staff from the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), takes place tonight at 7 at the Maltz Museum.

As part of the Maltz's film series, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, a film narrated by Cleveland’s Joel Grey, examines the unique role of Jewish composers and lyricists in the creation of the modern American musical with a talk-back by the Musical Theater Project's Bill Rudman. The screening and discussion takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 2, at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

In addition, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24 at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, filmmaker Howard Rosenman will give a lecture on how a chance encounter with Bernsteinled led to a romantic relationship and kick-started a career in show business.

The centerpiece of the Maltz Museum’s public programming in celebration of Bernstein is part a concert series during which the maestro’s music will be played at venues throughout Cleveland, including the Bernstein Beat with the Cleveland Orchestra on the 50th anniversary of their Family Concert Series, featuring Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein. That concert takes place at 2 p.m. on Feb. 2, at Severance Hall.

The exhibit has such wide appeal that it'll appeal to people who aren't even classical music fans.

“First of all, I hope visitors understand know you don’t know how to play an instrument or read sheet music or sing or dance to understand [the exhibit] as a human interest story about one man’s experience of some of the most tumultuous times of the 20th century and how music led him through those times," says Weingram. "I hope visitors will come away from the exhibition understanding how one man from a modest home and upbringing was able to use his talents to negotiate the challenges that faced him and bring comfort and hope to others.”

Through Sept. 29, you can see the exhibit for a special opening week discounted admission price of $5.

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