Leonard Bernstein knew the power of place. Over and over, he depicted it in music.

“New York, New York, it’s a helluva town… (from On the Town)
“Why oh why oh why-o, why did I ever leave Ohio?... (from Wonderful Town)
“I like to be in A-mer-i-ka… (from West Side Story)

Boston never got a song, but it’s where Leonard Bernstein was born and bred. And its impact on him was profound.

Late in life, Leonard Bernstein described his early years this way: “I was a little provincial boy from Boston.”

But he was also observant and resourceful. And things and people with whom he came into contact had an outsized impact on his trajectory: Aunt Clara’s piano. The choir and organ at Mishkan Tefila, the Bernstein family synagogue. The young kids with whom he formed a secret language. The older kids with whom he staged operas in his parents’ living room. Symphony Hall, where he first heard a live orchestra.

Sid Ramin, who met Bernstein when they were 12 years old, remembers when Bernstein’s father gave Leonard the money to buy George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue." It cost $2. “And we went back to Lenny’s place and he opened it and at sight he started to play it,” Ramin said. “Then he got to a certain part and said, ‘You know, I wonder why Gershwin wrote in this key.’ And he started to play it in another key!”

Boston Latin put Bernstein in a coat and tie, and immersed him in the classics. Ramin remained at the Lloyd Garrison School in Roxbury.

“And he would meet me after school, and he would do all my algebra problems for me because I was terrible at math and he would do them so effortlessly,” Ramin said. “The other thing that was interesting was when his father bought him a typewriter, he sat down and he studied the keys, and he just whizzed through, almost like he had taken a course in touch-typing. It was amazing. He just looked at it for two or three minutes, and then went to work at it.”

Harvard introduced Bernstein to philosophy and aesthetics, facilitated further immersion in theater, and freed him to follow his curiosity, wherever it led.

Harold Shapero, a composer and classmate of Bernstein’s at Harvard, recalls Bernstein’s college activities: “The classical group, the movie group, the up-all-night drinkin’-beer, talking philosophy, you know!," said Shapero. "That was undergraduate life for him.”

He and Bernstein played piano concerts together. “We had a lot of fun on those concerts,” Shapero recalled. “I was lively, and he was very lively. And he was a powerful motivator. He would yell, ‘Come on! Come on! Rehearse! Rehearse!’”

During special movie nights, Harvard showed classic black and white films, like "Battleship Potemkin." Shapero and Bernstein were asked to accompany the films on piano, to make a soundtrack.

“I did it for a while, and Lenny did it a lot,” Shapero recalled. “When Lenny did it, it was terrific, I have to admit.”

Bernstein had an irrepressible spirit and hunger to perform, even when it bordered on inappropriate. Shapero recalled, “One time we had a party and — you gotta remember, this is when we were 17 or 18 years old, and he wasn’t the famous person yet. So, some poor unfortunate girl had sat down at the piano. She was going to entertain, right? Well, Lenny went over like a Harpo Marx movie — Lenny went to the piano bench and took his butt and went WHEECH! He knocked her right off the stool like that. He didn’t ask them to leave, he just did a physical thing and then he took over the way always did. But he was good, you gotta say that.”

Sid Ramin agreed that the talent was undeniable and that everyone who met Bernstein knew he was going to be famous.

It helped that Bernstein had a knack for networking. He invited Aaron Copland, America’s leading composer, to watch him conduct music Bernstein had written for a Harvard student production of Aristophanes’ "The Birds." Copland did come, and as Shapero recalled, noticed that Bernstein was a born conductor.

Impressed, Copland introduced Bernstein to Serge Koussevitsky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony. That led Koussevitsky to invite Bernstein to join his very first conducting class at Tanglewood, the musical idyll in the Berkshires that’s really an extension of musical Boston.

At Tanglewood, Bernstein gave his first concert leading a professional orchestra — the Boston Symphony — and, almost 50 years later, his last. His brother Burton said that before that last concert, Lenny — cancer-ridden and wracked with pain — felt he was coming home to die.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie says he never forgot where he came from. “He loved coming back to Boston," she said. "He didn’t feel burdened by bad memories, or oppressed the way people often do when they go back home. He was always sort of giddy about coming back to Boston, and seeing all the old places and friends.”

And perhaps that says more than any song could.

Judith Kogan is a Boston-based harpist and radio journalist.