NOVEMBER 1, 2018, WALTHAM – A letter from Leonard Bernstein pays tribute to Solomon Braslavsky, the esteemed European-born music director of Congregation Mishkan Tefila, the Bernstein family synagogue in Boston during Leonard’s youth. Film clips include footage of Bernstein at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and the sounds of Bernstein’s wide-ranging scores enliven the gallery from audio clips and an interactive display that reveals the prevalence of Jewish faith in Bernstein’s repertoire.
These are among the treasures that beckon viewers at “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” an engaging exhibit at Brandeis University’s Spingold Theater in Waltham through Nov. 20.
The larger-than-life conductor, composer, educator, and music world luminary taught at the school’s nascent music department during the university’s formative years (1951-1956). He later served on its board of directors. His influence and legacy continue to resonate on campus, including through the annual Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts.
Over the last year and a half, during the centennial year of Bernstein’s birth on Aug. 25, 1918 in Lawrence, the first American-born and first Jewish-American conductor to lead a major symphony orchestra has been celebrated here and around the world with concerts, performances, and exhibits.
In mounting “The Power of Music,” Brandeis is bringing the maestro home to its campus and the Greater Boston community.
A multimedia exhibit, with letters, photographs, and artifacts including a family Seder plate and Haggadah, are on loan from the composer’s family and other collections. In the intimate Dreitzer Gallery space, visitors explore his life, Jewish identity, and social activism. Additional material from the university archives and special collections department highlight Bernstein’s time at Brandeis.
Some exhibit items also are on view at the Slosberg Music Center and at the Shapiro Admissions Center on campus.
Brandeis is the first location to showcase the touring exhibit that originated at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna, the preeminent historian of American Judaism, is the museum’s chief historian and is steeped in research of Bernstein’s Jewish roots in Boston.
At the opening last month, Sarna was animated describing the March 20, 1964 letter Bernstein wrote to Samuel Rosenbaum, the executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly of America, which is among the items on display in the entry space of the gallery.
“I shall never forget that music, nor cease to be grateful for the power, conviction, and atmosphere with which it was conveyed,” Bernstein wrote about his first exposure to music at Temple Mishkan Tefila, under the leadership of Braslavsky.
To his knowledge, “No major conductor has revealed such an influence by a synagogue,” Sarna said.
Among the most poignant artifacts is a calligraphy scroll of appreciation, dated May 10, 1948, from a displaced persons camp in Munich, where Bernstein, on a European tour just days before the founding of the State of Israel, conducted a concert by musicians who were Holocaust survivors. Video clips feature stirring interviews with some of the survivors.
Viewers can feast their eyes on the first page of a lively nine-page letter Bernstein sent to his mother, Jennie, from a visit to Israel later that year. The gem of a letter, from the Library of Congress collection, is embellished with vibrant watercolor illustrations by Yossi Stern, a Hungarian refugee from the Holocaust known as the “Painter of Jerusalem.”
Other material reveals Bernstein’s embrace of the newly established Jewish university in Waltham and his role in launching its music department. At his suggestion, Bernstein’s Harvard classmate, Irving Fine, was chosen to head the department.
For four years, Bernstein’s standing-room-only lectures “electrified the campus,” Brandeis University president Ron Liebowitz said at the exhibit’s opening. Among those recruited to teach in the new department were Aaron Copland and Harold Shapero. Yehudi Wyner of Medford, professor emeritus of composition, was another of the influential composers on its faculty.
“He spent real time with students. He was a presence,” Sarna said of Bernstein, noting that he chose the campus for the 1952 world premiere of “Trouble in Tahiti,” an opera performed before an audience of 3,000.
Other items specific to the Brandeis exhibit from its archive is the program from the first Festival of the Creative Arts, launched by Bernstein in 1952, according to Surella Seelig, the university’s special projects archivist. In 2005, it was renamed the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts.
At Brandeis, “His legacy is profound,” according to Ingrid Schorr, director of the university’s Office of the Arts, who coordinated bringing the exhibit to Brandeis and who produces the annual spring festival.
Bernstein’s embrace of featuring a multitude of voices in his works and his activism for social causes and civil rights strikes a chord for students today, she told the Journal.
“Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” is at the Dreitzer Gallery in the Spingold Theater Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.; Thursday, noon to 8 p.m. Free and open to the public. Note: the entry included a short flight of stairs.