Leonard Bernstein in 1955.

Al Ravenna, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection/Library of Congress

Leonard Bernstein was a legendary conductor who led some of the world’s greatest orchestras. He was a public intellectual who used TV in innovative ways to bring classical music to millions.

And he was a composer who blended genres to create provocative, powerful American music. Bernstein the composer -- creator of the famous melodies in "West Side Story" and the provocative sounds in "Mass" -- is the focus of this special episode of The Great Composers.

Bernstein was born Aug. 25, 1918, and classical music lovers across the world are marking the 100th anniversary of his birth this year. It's a chance to rediscover his most indelible compositions, connect with his lesser-known pieces and appreciate what a singular musical figure he was. 

Marin Alsop

(Photo: Courtesy Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

We turned to conductor Marin Alsop, Bernstein's protégé, for insights on what made Bernstein's music so powerful. 

"He was the sum of all these unbelievable parts and unbelievable experiences," Alsop says. "His genius ... lay in how he was able to connect the different dots in life, so that what he did as a conductor informed what he did as a composer. Which informed what he did as an educator, which informed what he did as a TV star."
 
Alsop serves as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony and Conductor Laureate of the Colorado Symphony. She studied under Bernstein and has conducted and recorded almost everything he wrote for orchestra. She talked about her favorite moments in Bernstein's music and Bernstein's ultimate legacy.

For more, check out this Spotify playlist, featuring more than four hours of Alsop conducting Bernstein's music:

Explore our earlier Great Composers series on the life and music of Mozart and discover other podcasts from CPR Classical: Centennial Sounds, featuring Colorado performances of music by 21st-century composers; and The Beethoven 9, a look at Beethoven's life through his nine symphonies.