FROM THE VAULT
By Cheryl Kempler
The official centennial of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth isn’t until Aug. 25, 2018, but a two-year celebration is already underway. Could there be a B’nai B’rith connection?
Profiled in B’nai B’rith’s National Jewish Monthly in 1943, Bernstein, then the 25-year old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, got rave reviews after his unscheduled debut at the podium. This prodigy had written ballets, musicals and symphonies like "Jeremiah," based on the Old Testament. His interview, and accompanying headshot, inspired some cute poetry from some of B’nai B’rith’s female readers.
Two years later, Bernstein headed a committee that included famed composer and conductor Aaron Copland to choose the winner of a contest for composers under the age of 30. Bernstein had risen quickly; he was now engaged by both the Philharmonic and City Center’s New York Symphony Orchestra.
The prize was awarded under the auspices of the George Gershwin Memorial Foundation, founded and funded by Manhattan’s B’nai B’rith Victory Lodge and the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations. Named for the man who had given the world masterpieces including "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Porgy and Bess" before his premature death in 1937, the foundation awarded $1,000 and covered the costs of a New York premiere for the winning work.
Held in March 1945, the award concert featured the New York Philharmonic with Bernstein conducting the winning entries by two 22-year-olds, Peter Mennin and Army Sgt. Romeo Cascarino. A week before, Bernstein had wielded the baton at a Victory Lodge benefit featuring Broadway star Muriel Smith.
When the contest was announced the next year, Bernstein was again in charge, selecting the winning work by Harold Shapero, later a Brandeis University professor, and leading the concert, broadcast over radio station WNYC.
Bernstein would continue to participate in the foundation’s activities and would occasionally conduct the Gershwin Memorial Foundation concerts, presented through 1961. In 1966, the Victory Lodge ceded the funds of the Gershwin Memorial Foundation to the Juilliard School, which continues to offer the prize as a scholarship.
From Milken Archive
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