A genius composer's life distilled into rare artifacts at Maltz

When “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music” opens at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood next week, visitors will get a glimpse into noted composer Leonard’s Bernstein’s life, his Jewish faith, and his social activism in the times of World War II, the Holocaust and the Vietnam War.

“The Power of Music” is the first large-scale museum exhibition of Bernstein. It was curated by Ivy Weingram, a museum consultant, for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, where it opened in March 2018 before traveling to Brandeis University in Massachusetts last fall.

The exhibit, which first ran to coincide with the maestro’s 100th birthday, opens at the Maltz Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 25, and runs through March 1.

Leonard Bernstein with his parents, Jennie and Samuel Bernstein, c. 1921“We tell his story every day, but we wanted to take a deeper dive in thinking about putting this together,” Weingram says. “These historic artifacts tell a new narrative that hasn’t been examined before.”

Weingram spent three years collecting the letters, papers, artifacts and even the Steinway piano Bernstein played as a teenager (he was contracted to play Baldwin pianos during his career) from sources like the Library of Congress, Indiana University, private collectors, and the Bernstein family.

The Library of Congress has 400,000 Bernstein-related items in its collection, Weingram says. “We narrowed it down from 400,000 to 100,” she quips.

The public has never seen some of the other pieces in the collection before this exhibit, including an annotated copy of “Romeo and Juliet” used for the development of “West Side Story” (originally imagined as “East Side Story”), the program for his Carnegie Hall debut, Bernstein’s conducting suit, and his easel used for studying scores and composing.

While Weingram says asking her to pick a favorite item in the exhibit is like picking a favorite child, she says she finds the piano particularly special.

“It’s the Steinway piano he played from age 14 to 17,” she says. “It belonged to Helen Coates, his piano teacher, and she later gave it to him. Then she became his assistant.”

Coates deserves thanks for being able to put together such an impressive collection, Weingram says. “She saved every piece of paper that crossed his desk,” she says.

But this exhibit does not just focus on Bernstein as a composer. It chronologically delves into his life and struggles with his faith and social injustices. For example, the exhibit features correspondence between Bernstein and a high school humanities teacher where he referred to his “search for a solution to the 20th century crisis of faith”—a theme that appeared in much of his work.

Bernstein’s Jewish heritage is displayed through many artifacts, including the mezuzah that hung in his studio, the Hebrew prayer book he carried with him when he traveled, his ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), his family’s Passover Seder plate, and the Talmud (book of Jewish law) given to Bernstein by his father.

The exhibition also features a variety of films, sound installations, and interactive media. Visitors will hear from Bernstein himself through archival recordings and documentary footage, alongside interviews with those who knew him best.

A state-of-the-art multimedia interactive portion of the exhibit invites 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.

Leonard Bernstein’s Steinway piano, a gift from his piano teacher, Helen Coates.

In addition to the exhibit, the Maltz Museum is hosting a variety of educational programs around “The Power of Music.” Check the museum website for programming information.

To celebrate the exhibit opening, the museum is offering $5 admission from Wednesday, Sept. 25, through Sunday, Sept. 29.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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