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David Chack embraces many roles, but he shines as a teacher, actor, and artistic director. Through the magic technology of Zoom, he shared his knowledge about the life and career of Leonard Bernstein on May 11 with more than 300 eager Levy Lecture attendees.
Mr. Chack, an adjunct professor of Jewish and Holocaust Theatre, as well as Identity Theatre at DePaul University in Chicago, specializes in the study of how Judaism and Jewish culture affect popular American culture. He is also the Producing Artistic Director of ShPIeL Performing Identity Theatre in Chicago and Louisville.
Using clips from YouTube, he shared examples of Mr. Bernstein’s conducting and playing the piano; interviews with Mr. Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, and various collaborators; examples of other conductors directing Mr. Bernstein’s work; and scenes from his work on Broadway.
Mr. Chack enthused about Mr. Bernstein’s musical genius and expansive curiosity. Mr. Bernstein spoke five languages fluently and read voraciously, often juggling four or five books at a time. His intellectual brilliance and “need to know” about everything pushed him beyond classical music to explore jazz, musical theater, popular culture, political struggles, Jewish liturgy, and the plights of those less fortunate, often all at the same time. He incorporated those genres and ideas into his work, which Mr. Chack pointed out in the clips.
One of the threads across all of Mr. Bernstein’s work was his desire “to make the world a better place,” as his daughter says in one clip. He believed that if he worked hard enough, he could write a piece of music that could change and heal the world. As Mr. Chack explained this concept of healing and repairing the world (“tikkun olam” in Hebrew) is directly influenced by Mr. Bernstein’s Jewish upbringing.
He came close to reaching this lofty goal with the music to “West Side Story,” a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It is a universal story about fear of assimilation, intolerance and hatred, as well as love and acceptance in spite of long-held cultural prejudices.
The modern, groundbreaking musical known throughout the world was originally imagined by Jerome Robbins as a conflict between Jews and gentiles living on the Lower East Side of New York; the working title was “East Side Story.” Mr. Robbins was going to direct and choreograph it, and he recruited Howard Laurents to write the book and Leonard Bernstein to compose the music, but eventually gave up, saying, “It was too Jewish.”
They shelved the project. Five years later, as gang violence became more widespread in cities like New York and Los Angeles, the project was revived, but this time the conflict shifted to rival gangs on the Upper West Side of New York. Stephen Sondheim, in his first experience writing for Broadway, was brought in to write the lyrics. Lack of funding almost prevented the musical from being produced.
At times during his life, Mr. Bernstein was ridiculed by critics and fans alike as “too commercial” or “too radical,” but he never let public opinion guide his quest for knowledge or limit his experiences. His friendship with Adolph Green and Betty Comden led to arrangements in comedic pieces and their work together on Broadway shows like “On the Town” in 1949. Mr. Bernstein composed the music for the 1954 movie “On the Waterfront,” starring Marlon Brando and directed by Elia Kazan.
He had a big heart, embraced the underdog, and loved people. Mr. Chack described Mr. Bernstein as a hugger, someone who would greet someone he had just met with a kiss. Mr. Bernstein was an early and public supporter of Marian Anderson, the African American opera singer. As an outspoken humanitarian, he supported civil rights, human rights, and world peace; protested against the Vietnam War; and raised money for HIV/AIDS awareness and research.
Mr. Bernstein studied music in college and graduated from Harvard University in 1939. He continued his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Musical influences and mentors in his life were George Gershwin, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Serge Koussevitzky, and Aaron Copeland.
Later in his career, he taught, lectured, and conducted concerts all over the world and excelled as a teacher. He conducted 53 Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, each one televised live, as he introduced an entire generation to classical music.
It would appear that Leonard Bernstein did change the world – with his music, his teaching, his wide-ranging and prodigious output spanning musical genres. Readers interested in watching an encore of David Chack’s Levy Lecture on Leonard Bernstein may do so on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.