NEW YORK — LEONARD BERNSTEIN was an exuberant, multifaceted talent: composer, conductor, author, poet, educator. He was an integral part of the American and international musical scene for well over three decades. Perhaps this is why last week's announcement of Bernstein's retirement from the conductor's podium for reasons of health seemed so abrupt and had about it an aura of finality that his passing six days later sadly confirmed. How can one finally assess his achievements, as well as the profound impact this singular American genius had on so many aspects of musical life here and abroad? His greatest fame was achieved through one of the great American musical scores, ``West Side Story.'' He was a gifted pianist, equally at home as a concerto soloist - his recording of Gershwin's ``Rhapsody in Blue'' remains the finest - and as accompanist to the great song recitalists.
His presence and impact on radio and television, as conductor and educator, has been without precedent in the history of serious music. He was also a media darling, garnering attention for musical and non-musical events.
From virtually the beginning of his musical career, he was at once a creature of the concert halls and the airwaves. His unexpected debut with the New York Philharmonic in Nov., 1943, replacing an ailing Bruno Walter, occurred on the day of the orchestra's weekly nationwide radio broadcast. For numerous seasons on TV, Bernstein's ``Young People's Concerts'' came into living rooms - enlightening, elucidating, taming the supposed terrors of classical music, and communicating a love of the art form to the knowledgeable and the neophyte simultaneously. Today, we can see and hear the latter-day Bernstein on laser video discs of performances ranging from his own ``West Side Story'' (a documentary about the making of the Deutsche Grammophon [DG] recording of the score) to works of Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, and who knows what else lying about in the video archives.
Bernstein's recording career covered the era of 78s right up to today's compact discs, and documented just about every aspect of his music-making. including his decade (1958-1969) as music director of the New York Philharmonic (on CBS Masterworks, now Sony Classical), with which he made over 200 records. Later still came the work for DG with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and the New York, Vienna, and Israel Philharmonics. And while he leaves unfinished several symphonic cycles - of Sibelius, Shostakovich, Mahler and Ives - we can be grateful for the riches that have been accomplished.
He was clearly destined for great things, a fact only highlighted by that unexpected Philharmonic debut. He was then the orchestra's assistant conductor but had already studied with the legendary Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. And as a student at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood (the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home) in 1940, he had caught the attention of Serge Koussevitsky, who immediately became the young maestro's mentor. It was at Tanglewood that the music world came together for a stellar musical blow-out of a 70th birthday celebration in 1988, the main program of which was later aired on a PBS telecast.
Bernstein became the first American conductor to be embraced and publicly adored in Vienna, and his association with that city's fabled Philharmonic Orchestra has been amply documented over the years, part of his enviable legacy and artistic testament of recordings and videos.
Bernstein was one of the last of that once-common breed of composing conductors (or should it be conducting composers?) whose personal absorption with the creative act of musicmaking informed his approach to re-creating the music of others, past and present. His fervent love for new music never abandoned him., and his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic (his final title with them was conductor laureate) was distinguished by his commitment to the new, and to encouraging his audiences - by means of chats and mini-lectures - to listen without preconceptions.
During this tenure, he recorded eight of the nine Mahler symphonies, which single-handedly launched the wave of interest in that then-neglected composer that continues to undulate unabated to this day. He championed the works of Charles Ives, that American original, at a time when the rest of the serious music world still thought of the banker-composer as an eccentric.
For Bernstein, creating music was at least as important, if not more so, than conducting, and he complained throughout his career about never having sufficient time to devote to composition. His music ranged from Broadway scores like ``On the Town,'' ``Candide,'' and ``West Side Story,'' to ballet (``Facsimile'' and ``Fancy Free'') movie music (``On the Waterfront''), three ambitious symphonies, a choral work (the magnificent ``Chichester Psalms''), the controversial ``Mass'' (commissioned to open the Kennedy Center in Washington), and a highly personal-statement opera, ``A Quiet Place'' that officially absorbed his earlier opera, ``Trouble in Tahiti.''
No active conductor since Mahler has written so much that will remain active in the concert repertoire. No conductor has written music of such enduring popularity. as the ``Candide'' overture and ``West Side Story.'' Few figures in classical music have had the overall impact on a large public Bernstein did. Fortunately, we have all the documents - aural and visual - to remind us just what a unique artist he really was.