Happy 101st birthday, Leonard Bernstein | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Happy 101st birthday, Leonard Bernstein

Ravinia debuts its new "experience center" with an exhibit devoted to the maestro.

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In March, Ravinia Festival announced that it would open "a major addition to the park, the RaviniaMusicBox Experience Center, later this summer."

Housed in a new 9,500-square-foot building and attached by a second-floor bridge to the park's dining pavilion, the Experience Center would consist of a lobby, a "preview space with interactive screen technology," and a 65-seat "wrap-around" theater that would feature a 4-D experience. Visitors would leave the theater via a "museum gallery."

It would be the culmination of ten years of planning with BRC Imagination Arts Company, the same firm that designed exhibits for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield.

So far, only the exit experience and a rooftop bar, the BMO Club, named for its banking-business sponsor, have opened—we'll have to reserve judgment on the 4-D theater. Since late July, however, even on evenings when lawn refreshment kiosks have gone depressingly unmanned, festival audiences have been able to wander through the gallery. The space is disappointing—a single large, merely functional room set off a curving, glass-walled lobby. But its inaugural exhibit, "Leonard Bernstein at 100," on loan from the Grammy Museum and mostly a standard wall-text, video, and artifact-under-glass production, is still worth a preshow look.

It presents Bernstein as composer, conductor, political liberal, teacher, and media darling: "the greatest and most important classical music figure in American history." Exhibits include a Bernstein baton, broken by Venezuelan prodigy Gustavo Dudamel, who's there on video to tell you how it happened; the upright piano the future maestro learned on; and the New York Times front page documenting his career-launching conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, when he stepped in at the last minute after Bruno Walter fell ill. He was 25 years old.

Also: grainy home movies, furniture (including a stool once owned by Brahms), excerpts from his 53 nationally televised Young People's Concerts, and a permanent-wave machine with voltage dials that looks like a prop for a vintage horror film but was one of the products sold by the business his immigrant father built: the Samuel J. Bernstein Hair Company.

There's even a karaoke recording booth where you can find out definitively that you couldn't have beat out Chita Rivera in an audition for West Side Story.

The exhibit opened as Ravinia was well into a second season celebrating Bernstein's birthday centennial with one glorious program after another (the birthday: August 25, 1918). This year, in addition to a fine production of his one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti and last week's performance of Candide (with ebullient Bernstein music, witty lyrics by Richard Wilbur and others, and a book no one could get right), Ravinia presented two Bernstein CSO movie nights (West Side Story and On the Waterfront, the latter his only foray into film scoring) and an encore production of his radically inclusive Mass that will get an upcoming airing on national television. Late last month, the CSO also presented a terrific overview, "Lenny: A Musical Portrait in Symphony, Song and Story," conducted by Marin Alsop (who trained under him) and hosted by his daughter, Jamie Bernstein. Of many memorable moments in this series, the portrait contained my favorite: a video clip of the conclusion of a fledgling Alsop conducting effort that showed the maestro running from the audience to the podium to envelop her in a congratulatory bear hug.

How would the exuberant Bernstein have fared in the #MeToo era? Jamie Bernstein spent a lot of time at Ravinia this year, talking about her father and signing copies of her fascinating, loving, warts-and-all 2018 book Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein. She notes in it that he tongued everyone, including her, and that she gradually came to realize that his affection for young men was as rampant as his passion for music. In the book's most chilling moment, she tells of a haunting prediction her mother, actress Felicia Montealegre (who was aware of his sexual preference when they married), tossed at him across a dinner table: "You're going to die a lonely, bitter old queen."

If you didn't know this about the world's most popular maestro—or only learned of it in recent years—it's not surprising. His "perfect" family life as husband to the glamorous Montealegre and the father of their three children was all that the people in charge of his career thought the mid-20th-century public would tolerate.

The Bernstein programming is over for this season, but on September 12, Ravinia will host a performance of the oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard by the vocal ensemble Conspirare, conducted by its composer, Craig Hella Johnson. A walk through the Bernstein exhibit that night will have more than musical significance. v

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