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Bernstein was born in Lawrence, MA, in 1918, the son of Sam Bernstein, a Russian-born Talmudic scholar-turned-fish-cleaner-turned-businessman. Bernstein seemed destined for a career in business until age ten, when he began playing the piano on his own and got good enough to give lessons to other children, earning enough money to pay for his own lessons when his father refused to indulge in such impractical activities. A Boston Pops concert that he attended also contributed mightily to Bernstein's youthful musical aspirations, and during his teens he began staging operas, composing, and playing the piano on a radio show that was sponsored by his father's cosmetics company. He had an equal aptitude with popular music and the classics, and was a formidable improviser even at this young age.
Bernstein's formal music training began astonishingly late, at age 14, by which time he was already immersed in the beginnings of a musical career. After initial study with Helen Coates, who subsequently became his mentor and personal secretary, he studied with the prominent piano teacher Heinrich Gebhard. He attended Harvard, and became very well known at the university for his prodigious musical abilities -- surprisingly, he often neglected courses in music theory in favor of classes in philosophy and language, all the while playing the piano at every opportunity and writing about music as well. If he had a role model at the time, it was the pianist/composer George Gershwin, whose work -- mixing classical and jazz influences freely -- prefigured much of what Bernstein wanted to do with music.
It appeared that Bernstein was destined for a career as a concert pianist, when a chance encounter in 1937 with the Greek-born maestro Dimitri Mitropoulos, which led to a brief homosexual relationship, changed the course of his career. Seeing the celebrated conductor at work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein became fixated upon the art of conducting, and decided to shift his intention from a career at the keyboard to one at the podium. He later became the musical protégé of Serge Koussevitsky, the celebrated music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and also fell under the spell of composer Aaron Copland, who, like Mitropoulos, was also attracted to Bernstein on a sexual level.
Bernstein's studies were uninterrupted by World War II, the result of chronic asthma that made him unfit for military service, and he subsequently attended the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and later studied at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. It was on the strength of a recommendation from Koussevitsky that Bernstein was hired as an assistant conductor by the New York Philharmonic. This was not a prominent or glamorous post, primarily charging Bernstein with responsibility for screening new scores, occasionally coaching the orchestra, and standing by in the event that the scheduled conductor on a given evening was unable to appear.
It was in the latter capacity that lightning first struck for Bernstein, on the afternoon of November 14, 1943, when the scheduled conductor, Bruno Walter, was suddenly taken ill, just hours before he was to conduct a program of both new and established concert works. Artur Rodzinsky, the orchestra's permanent conductor, who would normally have taken the concert in Walter's place, was stuck out of town and couldn't return in time, and recommended the unknown Bernstein. As it happened, this was also a broadcast performance, and so millions of listeners got to hear the neophyte conductor take over the performance on only hours' notice, and lead the orchestra through a flawless performance of a difficult program, which included works by Robert Schumann, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, and Miklos Rozsa. Instead of following the orchestra, which had already played the repertory on the prior nights' programs, Bernstein added new interpretive details, taking over control and putting his stamp on these pieces.
The next day, Bernstein and the story of the behind-the-scenes drama at the Philharmonic and the broadcast that followed were on the front page of The New York Times and other major newspapers, and not just in New York. Literally overnight, he was in demand as a conductor, sufficiently to receive invitations from various major orchestras and the offer of a recording contract with RCA Victor, then one of the three biggest record labels in the country (alongside Columbia and Decca). Additionally, Bernstein's reputation as a composer began to blossom for the first time during this period, most notably with his music for a Jerome Robbins-choreographed ballet called Fancy Free, which he later turned into the hit musical show On the Town (which, in turn, became the basis for the movie starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra).
It was as a composer, primarily for the stage, that Bernstein began emerging in the years after his New York Philharmonic debut. While his opera Trouble in Tahiti received a mixed, largely negative response, and his musical adaptation of Peter Pan never caught on with audiences or critics despite some memorable songs, Candide was a hit, and his music for Elia Kazan's movie On the Waterfront (1954) -- although he found the process of composing for films frustrating -- received an Oscar nomination, and was heard (and beloved) by millions of people who saw the movie, and is today regarded as one of the finest bodies of music ever written for a film. And his collaboration with Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim on West Side Story became one of the defining works of 20th century musical theater, generating a career's worth of hit songs and melodies whose popularity extended to every corner of musical life -- not yet 40 years old, he'd moved into the rarefied ranks of successful popular and theater composers, and was following a career arc rivaling that of his one-time idol Gershwin. He also became a familiar figure on television, through his appearances on the Omnibus documentary series.
And there were some recordings -- his contract with RCA Victor limited Bernstein to recording contemporary works (including some of his own), but his stint conducting the Philharmonic in its summer concerts at Lewisohn Stadium in northern Manhattan led to a recording contract with Decca Records (for which the Philharmonic, to avoid a violation of its exclusive contract with Columbia Masterworks, was billed as the "Lewisohn Stadium Symphony Orchestra"). This gave him his first chance to record the mainstream European repertory, including works by Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky; and he ran with it, in a series of genuinely exciting and bracing interpretations that remained popular for decades. His aspirations as a conductor were thwarted, however, and his career seemed stalled. Through a series of unfortunate missteps by all parties, he was denied the chance to succeed Koussevitsky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and any ambitions he might've had in New York were stymied by the presence of Dimitri Mitropoulos as Music Director of the Philharmonic.
Bernstein's second big break in classical music came during the mid-'50s, when rumors of the orchestra's growing unhappiness with Mitropoulos began circulating. The celebrated conductor was gradually being worn down by his constant battles with the orchestra's players, a board of directors that didn't seem to know what it wanted, a press corps that found little good to say about his work, and an indifferent public. Additionally, his health was deteriorating, and it seemed to all concerned by 1955 that Mitropoulos might not last much longer with the Philharmonic. What's more, after the debacle in Boston, the stars seemed to be aligning in Bernstein's favor, despite his youth -- the only veteran conductors on the scene, Leopold Stokowski and Bruno Walter, were both in their seventies and ruled out by their ages (Stokowski had shared the chief conductor's spot briefly in the 1940s; and Walter had been considered for the post then but ruled himself out at the time, taking instead the lesser, improvised title of "Musical Advisor" for two years, owing both to his age and also to his lack of appreciation for contemporary music, which formed an important part of the Philharmonic's mission). There were two obstacles, however, that he would have to overcome -- the first was the fact that no American-born conductor had ever held the post of chief conductor (or, as it was to be renamed, music director) of any major American orchestra; their boards tended to look at Europeans, owing to an in-bred cultural inferiority that went with classical music at the time, and the Philharmonic was the most elitist of them all. And there was also still one man ahead of him, standing in his path: Guido Cantelli.
The first choice to succeed Mitropoulos was the young Italian maestro, a protégé of octogenarian Arturo Toscanini, the Philharmonic's revered chief conductor from the 1920s and early '30s -- Cantelli had guest conducted with the Philharmonic as well as the NBC Symphony several times and had the endorsement and admiration not only of Toscanini but also of much of the New York musical establishment. His only drawback was his youth, and it was assumed by many that Bernstein might, at best, receive an interim appointment as chief conductor for three or four years, until Cantelli was ready, and then relinquish the job. Ironically, Cantelli died in a plane crash in November of 1956 while on his way to New York to take over a concert from the suddenly departed Mitropoulos -- Toscanini, who died early the following year, was never told of his death, and Cantelli's loss is still felt in the 21st century, as demonstrated by the string of releases of his surviving studio and broadcast recordings coming from labels such as Testament Records.
The tragedy left Bernstein as the leading contender for the position. His appointment was still not a foregone conclusion, however, for he was far too closely associated with Broadway for the taste of many of the orchestra's board members. It was only after he agreed to abandon his Broadway career that these doubts were settled. (It's a demonstration of how times have changed -- in the emaciated classical music marketplace of the 21st century, board members of any American orchestra would likely consider selling their souls to get a music director who could attract any portion of Broadway's clientele, and if he had an old show or two running at the time or his appointment, so much the better.)
After much behind-the-scenes politicking, and an interim appointment sharing the chief conductor's post with Mitropoulos, Bernstein was named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in November of 1958. At the age of 40, he had succeeded to the most prominent musical post in the United States, the first American-born musician to have achieved such a position with a major orchestra.
Overnight Bernstein became a national figure. He emerged into the limelight through a recording contract with Columbia Masterworks that ensured he would get to record every major piece of classical repertory -- some more than once -- over the next 15 years, and those recordings, in turn, brought Bernstein even more exposure. He was a shockingly handsome man, with matinee idol, even movie star good looks, and was a dashing figure at the podium, and on camera he was unbelievably charismatic. Additionally, he was a natural teacher, able to reach out to audiences of any age and explain music written as much as a century or two earlier to contemporary listeners. And kids and their parents loved him, as audiences for his televised Young Peoples' Concerts were soon to discover. Those broadcasts, which went on into the mid-'60s, did almost as much for music education nationally as the budgets of all the school districts in the country.
But his success was a factor of much more than his abilities as a speaker, or even as an interpreter of music. Bernstein had been fortunate enough to arrive on the national scene at around the same time as another major cultural figure out of Massachusetts, President John F. Kennedy. The two were of virtually the same age, and both men fairly radiated elegance and sexuality, though Bernstein's was of an ambiguous nature, his homosexuality hidden behind a marriage that had produced children -- though there were still rumors and stories, all suppressed at the time.
He had not only the classical music world at his feet but, seemingly, the pop culture world as well. Bernstein was the first American-born conductor to achieve superstar status before the general public, and he had the charisma to sustain it, and they devoured it, even those that didn't know or care much about classical music. Bernstein's youthful vigor was of a piece with the times, as New York and the country were entering a newly dynamic age, after the relatively sedate and calm 1950s -- in a bold spirit with decidedly different results, the U.S. was sending men into space and troops into Southeast Asia on two peculiarly diverse "adventures," and battling poverty and busting the federal budget, all with a vigor and an abandon that would have amazed the previous generation's leaders. New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the new permanent home for the Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and so on, built on the very slums where West Side Story was set, was opened in 1963. With two exceptions (Stokowski, who'd briefly shared the job in the 1940s, and the long-ago-replaced Sir John Barbirolli), Bernstein was the only leader of the Philharmonic, present or past, to live to see the opening, and the event only solidified the notion of a new era for the arts, with Leonard Bernstein as its most visible spokesperson. He was also lucky enough to come along just as Columbia Records and the rest of the music industry and the country were switching to stereo sound -- this ensured that he would be not only able but obliged to re-record virtually every remotely popular piece that had ever been in the Philharmonic's repertory.
His first recording for Columbia Masterworks as Music Director of the Philharmonic, of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, quickly rose to legendary status as a result of its freshness and savagery. His records included everything from warhorses such as Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice to the complete Mahler symphonies, which nobody had recorded in their entirety before; and it was not lost on Bernstein or the public that these performances were done with the successor to the orchestra that Mahler himself had led 50 years or so before. Strangely enough, amid all of this material -- many hundreds of recordings -- he only ever recorded two pieces by his boyhood idol George Gershwin, the Rhapsody in Blue, which he recorded with himself as piano soloist, and An American In Paris. Bernstein also championed the then neglected music of Charles Ives and made the first major orchestra recordings of contemporary pieces such as Atmospheres by Ligeti (albeit from an edited version of the score). Such was his status and stature, that when he recorded a piece, even by a relatively little-known modernist or a contemporary composer, audiences felt obliged to look into it. He was, if anything, the reverse of Toscanini in his effect on music -- where the venerated Italian maestro had limited his repertory to a narrow strip of Romantic works and a relative handful of composers (and, some say, limited the thinking about music for his hundreds of thousands of admirers in the process) from the 1920s to the 1950s, Bernstein was always challenging his listeners with new names and new pieces.
For all of his popularity, the most conservative voices in the classical critical community kept Bernstein at arm's length until his recordings of the late Haydn symphonies, works for which the Philharmonic had not been known during Mitropoulos' tenure. Unlike Mitropoulos, who was a specialist in the late Romantic repertory and modern music, Bernstein was a generalist in the extreme, conducting work from across history, from the Baroque to the contemporary.
By the mid-'60s, Bernstein commanded a huge cult of admirers, encompassing relatively casual listeners as well as dedicated classical enthusiasts, although the most conservative and tradition-minded classical aficionados still maintained their doubts until the completion of his recordings of the late Haydn symphonies, after which even they were converted. He was also a special cultural hero to American Jews, who regarded him as a representative of their success in the postwar United States -- that status, which lasted far longer than his tenure at the Philharmonic, was to provide Bernstein with a unique opportunity in Europe later in his career, for Bernstein's reputation transcended any national or religious group and spread around the world -- he became in music circles as much a symbol of the United States in the 1960s as President Kennedy was, and his guest performances sold huge numbers of tickets with every orchestra, while his records were selling in numbers comparable to those of many pop releases of the time, and selling well in countries outside the United States, as well.
The Philharmonic itself was also altered radically during his tenure. From a schedule of five months annually, he helped turn the orchestra into a year-round institution, with concerts scheduled in each season, and a commensurate increase in salary for the members. (One other factor in the incredible timing of his arrival and appointment was the retirement of Toscanini in 1954, and the final dissolution of the NBC Symphony Orchestra -- a broadcast unit created for the older conductor by the radio network that had competed with the Philharmonic for record sales, audience, and press coverage -- and its successor ensemble, the Symphony of the Air, a couple of years later, which left the Philharmonic as the only institution of its size or reputation in New York.) Additionally, the Philharmonic became a familiar and much-loved institution in New York under Bernstein, even among non-music fans, something that had never happened before; he made classical music seem friendly and accessible, rather than imposing, and audiences responded in kind. And Bernstein didn't limit himself to endorsing classical music only -- indeed, he spoke favorably of the music of the Beatles at a time when relatively few major figures in classical music did, and, in a 1966 CBS television special, introduced the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson performing the sublimely beautiful song "Surf's Up" at the piano.
After ten years at the Philharmonic, however, the responsibilities of the post, as well as its limitations, were beginning to wear on Bernstein. His record sales, although still strong, had peaked in the mid-'60s, and already by 1966 Columbia Records was becoming resistant to recording many of the works that Bernstein was interested in committing to disc -- between 1958 and 1966, he'd put a lifetime's worth of music on record, and the company saw anything too ambitious beyond that point as unnecessarily risky. Bernstein's appetite for change was whetted by his experience working with the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as a guest conductor, and with Decca/London Records on the resulting recordings, during the mid-'60s. He also liked the Decca/London engineers' approach to recording better than that of their counterparts at Columbia, and the label's packaging as well, which was far more exciting than much of what Columbia had done with his work. Moreover, he was eager to make operatic recordings, which Columbia Records was not -- and, in fact, had abandoned doing in the 1950s -- and he was able to do that in Vienna, with help from Decca/London and, later, Deutsche Grammophon Records.
Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, after some difficulty accepting Bernstein as a composer, took to him exceptionally well as a conductor and ultimately proved eager to work with him if he were willing, for reasons having everything to do with then-recent history. The Vienna Philharmonic, then as now, was one of the two most elite orchestras in the world (the other is the Berlin Philharmonic), and establishing an ongoing professional relationship with it represented both an opportunity and an honor that no conductor could pass up. And in a sense, conductor and orchestra needed each other -- the Vienna Philharmonic, with its Berlin counterpart, was one of the two finest orchestras the world, but like its counterpart it had been at a disadvantage with Jewish audiences and record buyers (especially in America), owing to events in Germany and Austria from 1933 through 1945 -- except that, in a sense, the VPO had it worse. It was an integral component of the city of Vienna and the Austrian nation, and their cultural life. But in March of 1938, Nazi Germany had forcibly annexed Austria after engineering the dissolution of the government of Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, which opposed annexation; although most Austrians over 30 opposed the union, and Schuschnigg spent seven years in a German prison, a major part of the population under 30 welcomed the Nazis' presence, and in Vienna they reveled in the anti-Semitism that the German rule institutionalized; in Berlin, by contrast, most voters had opposed Hitler in the last election and many even as late as 1938 made no show of anti-Semitism. And for the rest of history, Austria and Vienna in particular would occupy a suspect place in the estimation of those who cared to think about it -- victim of the Nazis or willing host and ally, no one could be sure. Some Austrian and German Jews -- most notably Bruno Walter among musicians -- had reconciled with the nation and city, and the Vienna Philharmonic, but the orchestra was at a disadvantage for decades in selling its records to Jewish listeners (especially in the United States, where they made up a major part of the classical audience). The orchestra, a self-governing body with no permanent music director, saw Bernstein as the solution to their problem -- securing the alliance of the most celebrated Jewish-American conductor in the world was one way of winning that audience over, and sending out a signal that times had, indeed, changed. Conversely, Bernstein was keenly aware of the significance of a Jewish-American conductor from New York establishing an ongoing relationship with the Vienna orchestra, and what it would mean to him; not only would this be the one kind of engagement that he could accept after New York post that would be perceived as a promotion, and rid him of the chore of being a music director in the process, but it would be another way of making history, and also potentially opened up a whole new round and cycle of record sales; even those listeners who'd loyally bought his New York recordings on Columbia might well have to hear his work with the Vienna Philharmonic (whereas they might not have cared what he did with, say, the St. Louis Symphony or the Los Angeles Philharmonic), especially if those records sounded significantly better. And, no doubt, the notion of an American-Jewish conductor coming to the Vienna Philharmonic -- Gustav Mahler's orchestra 60-some years before -- as an alumnus of the New York Philharmonic (which Mahler had also led), and performing and recording Mahler's symphonies, and those of Beethoven and others that Mahler had done, appealed to him to no end, bringing a cycle of music history back to its beginning point, with himself as the focal point.
In November of 1968, Bernstein announced his resignation from the New York Philharmonic effective the following year. His departure left a huge hole in the cultural fabric of the city and the country. The CBS network tried to keep the Young Peoples' Concerts going with Michael Tilson-Thomas but by the early '70s they were history, and Bernstein's vibrant, outgoing personality at the podium was succeeded by the far more cerebral composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, who, in turn, during the late '70s, was succeeded by the flashy but less musically respected Zubin Mehta.
Bernstein's exit from the orchestra was followed several years later by his departure from Columbia Records. Although he continued to perform and record in New York occasionally, as conductor emeritus of the Philharmonic, he increasingly spent his time and his recording engagements in Vienna, London, Israel, and, near the end of his career, Berlin. For a time during the early '70s, while still holding forth in New York in his luxury duplex on Park Avenue, he emerged into political circles in an unfortunate manner, hosting a fundraising party for the Black Panthers, an underground radical political group of the late '60s and early '70s, mostly known (though there was more to them than this) for fomenting riots and shootouts with the police; that event was immortalized by author Tom Wolfe, who was inspired to coin the sardonic phrase "radical chic" and attach it to the city's liberal elites.
During most of the 1970s, despite lapses such as this, Bernstein retained much of the luster of his earlier reputation, and his concerts were well attended. Although his subsequent recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, with which he signed in the middle of the 1970s, didn't sell as well as his most successful records on the 1960s, they were generally better received by the critics, and have remained steady, perennial sellers on CD. He re-recorded the major parts of his repertory, most notably the Mahler and Beethoven symphonies, and found a new generation of listeners in the bargain. Much of his activity during these years was spent with the Vienna Philharmonic, which made Bernstein an honorary member -- a rare honor from the self-governing orchestra -- in recognition of his productive years with them. He also worked with the Israel Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic.
One of his goals in giving up the Music Director's post with the Philharmonic was to spend more time composing, but it was in the latter role that Bernstein never found as much acceptance as he did for his conducting. His first two symphonies were written and premiered long before he was an established conductor, and eventually found larger audiences -- his third, entitled Kaddish, was written upon the death of President Kennedy, and was assured a much wider hearing by virtue of its inspiration. And his Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, written for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., sold well also, as an LP box. But none of Bernstein's classical works ever found the mass audience that his Broadway creations did, with West Side Story eclipsing most of the rest of his output in that area. Indeed, several parts of that score -- which became even more widely known through the 1961 movie version co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins -- are still among the most widely known pieces of music ever to come from the theater and have worked their way thoroughly into American popular culture, including rock reinterpretations ("America") and quotations in the early comedy of Robin Williams (actually, in his first appearance as "Mork from Ork").
The 1980s saw Bernstein's reputation decline along with his health. He became increasingly erratic at the podium -- his re-recording of the Mahler Second Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon features a slow movement that is so slow that members of the orchestra's string section admit they had trouble coming up with any sound. His years of living on the edge, pushing himself too hard professionally and personally, wore heavily on him, and toward the end of the 1980s, Bernstein looked a shadow of his former self. He was still sufficiently the showman, however, so that when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Bernstein led a Christmas Day performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 from the site of the demolished wall, featuring the combined orchestras, choirs, and soloists of the major orchestras of Berlin, London, Dresden, Paris, New York, and Leningrad, that was recorded and subsequently released by Deutsche Grammophon. Strangely enough, it was during this period of gradual decline that Bernstein admitted that many of the interpretive decisions he'd made in his days with the New York Philharmonic were little more than educated guesses, a major reason why he was eager to re-record many of the same works.
Toward the end, the performances got more uncertain, and were interspersed with a growing number of cancellations, even as he accepted ever fewer engagements. At Bernstein's final concert at Tanglewood on August 19, 1990, at a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the festival's founding, it was clear that Bernstein was barely able to stand up through the performance, and the orchestra was carrying him. He died exactly two months later.
Leonard Bernstein's legacy as a conductor has no peer among American musicians -- he recorded more than almost anyone -- and few among those around the world in terms of sheer breadth. He is often credited with establishing Gustav Mahler as a major composer before the concert-going public, but this somewhat overstates his importance and ignores the roles that Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos, in particular, played in popularizing Mahler's work in America. Bernstein's early RCA recordings, done during the 1940s, are primarily of historical interest. His Columbia recordings have had an uneven history on CD -- as with most Columbia (or, later, Sony Classical) releases, the sound on the early compact disc editions was substandard, and in the early '90s Sony attempted an upgrade in connection with the so-called "Royal Edition" series, which (for reasons that no one is still clear on) tried to link Bernstein's recordings with Prince Charles of England; the sound was still problematic, however, and it wasn't until the twin advents of Sony's Super-Audio CD releases and the "Artist of the Century" series, with a further upgrade, that Bernstein's Columbia recordings became competitive again. Among his Columbia recordings, the Rite of Spring, the Haydn symphonies, the Mahler Third, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth symphonies, the Sibelius symphonies, and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris are among the finest ever recorded, with the Gershwin works the finest renditions of these pieces ever done. Additionally, early in his recording career at Columbia, before he was even the Music Director of the Philharmonic, he did a recording of variant movements from the Beethoven Symphony No. 5, rejects of the first movement from Beethoven's sketchbooks, complete with a discussion by Bernstein, that is priceless to anyone who cares about music -- no one could lecture on music as persuasively. And in 2004, Deutsche Grammophon reissued his 1953 American Decca recordings with the Philharmonic (credited as the Lewisohn Stadium Orchestra), to rousing critical acclaim -- reappearing after decades of unavailability, they were a reminder, separate from his more mature and studied recordings, of how exciting he had made classical music seem in his early career.
Bernstein's Deutsche Grammophon recordings are generally competitive with his Columbia work, and most are superior in terms of sound as well. The notable exceptions are the Sibelius symphonies, of which the Columbia performances are superior. The Beethoven symphonies, the Mahler Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and both Ninths, with the Concertgebouw and the Berlin Philharmonic, are indispensable. In 2004, the conductor's Young Peoples' Concerts were also re-released on DVD. ~ Bruce Eder