Leonard Bernstein at 100
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On Race, Jewish Music, Spirituals, and Bernstein's Legacy
Wynton Marsalis discusses Bernstein's legacy, addressing the topics of race, Jewish music, and African American spirituals.
This interview was conducted in 2018 by the National Museum of American Jewish History, located on Historic Independence Mall in Philadelphia, as part of the original exhibition "Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music".
Wynton Marsalis, New York, NY
Leonard Bernstein and stuffed lion at a rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
I took this photo of Leonard after a rehearsal. A woman had presented him a stuffed lion and when he posed with it I quickly reacted and grabbed this photo. One of my all time favorites!
David Taylor, Chicago, IL, United States
Postlude to LB's First DG Recording, "Carmen" at the Met
I produced this recording for Deutsche Grammophon in the fall of 1972. After several months of post-production in Hannover, I brought discs of the preliminary edit back to New York in March of 1973 and played them for LB at his Amberson Productions offices on Sixth Avenue.
He liked it, and didn't ask for any of the 692 edits to be changed, but he requested a number of subtle but important changes in the mix. I went back to Germany, made those changes and sent him a new set of discs, along with a note expressing my admiration and thanks. This is the note which I received from him in reply.
The recording was released later that spring to wide acclaim. It was DG's best-selling opera recording, and Maestro and I each received a Grammy Award for it.
Thomas Mowrey, New York, NY, United States
Gag of a 3-year-old
My father hit me only twice. Once when came home at 4 am, without calling, after an evening at the Fillmore East. The first time, though, I was three years old. I was in his studio while he was studying a score. I thought it would be funny to pretend to sharpen a pencil in his ear. I believe I did deserve that slap!
Alexander Bernstein, New York, NY, United States
Remembering Freiheit in Berlin, 1989
One of the most memorable days of my life. (Listen to the audio below)
Craig Urquhart, Berlin, Germany
"I want to see the Cand-eeee"
Candide opened in 1956. I was four. My parents were all dressed up; clearly they were about to do something exciting. “Where are you going?” I asked. “We’re going to see Candide!” Mummy said, with a little shiver of anticipation. They were going to see candy? That sounded wonderful. “I want to go too!” I said. “No, darling, this is for grownups.” Candy – for grownups? Impossible. “But I want to see the candy! I want to see the can-deee...!” I was still kicking my nanny's shins in the throes of my tantrum as Mummy and Daddy scurried out the door in their opening night finery.
Jamie Bernstein, New York, NY, United States
Omnibus in Chicago
I vividly remember my father sitting me down in front of our television - one of the first - to watch Leonard Bernstein conducting the Marriage of Figaro on Omnibus. To this day I can still sing Figaro's aria in English, which I learned watching that program. I must have been 5 or 6. And of course, I have loved that opera ever since. And just as he remembered hearing Beethoven in Boston, so I remember his Mozart.
Nancy P. Barry, New York, NY, United States
I want to live in America!
In 1984 I was a PhD. student from Lima, Peru, at the University of Pittsburgh and working part time as an architect to support myself.
I have always been interested in classical music since childhood as my two older brothers played it at home. West Side Story was later one of my favorite movies and musicals of all times.
When I learned that Leonard Bernstein, the composer of the music of the film that I loved and identified with would be in town that February in a gala concert to benefit the Pittsburgh Symphony Society, I immediately purchased two tickets to attend the performance with my girlfriend, later my beloved wife.
I don't remember what the program was, but just because one of my favorite composers was the conductor of the orchestra, it was the opportunity of my lifetime to see him in person.
After the concert, I rushed backstage with other attendees to meet him.
After a few moments, he appeared in the rehearsal room where a grand piano was, dressed in a silk smoking jacket and his typical turtleneck shirt and smoking a cigarette as usual. He greeted everyone and was very charming and funny. After standing in line with many others to greet him, he readily signed my program and chatted briefly with me. I was very impressed by his simplicity and kindness. I admired him not only for being one of the best American composers of modern times, but his openness with everyone, young or old, of any walks of life. I was very fortunate that he came to Pittsburgh and that I could meet him personally.
As a coda, I became a US citizen in 1992, thanks to the influence his music had in me. Unfortunately the signed program of that benefit concert that he autographed was given to one of my brothers, and it is long lost now.
Jose F. Heraud, Pittsburgh, PA, United States
Sounds of Childhood
Some of my oldest memories are of my grandmother singing along to West Side Story. She was a Puerto Rican immigrant whose lipstick was as bright as her personality. The sound of her voice, mixed with laughter and pride, emulating the kinship she felt with Maria: both loyal to family and heart, both seamstresses in love with gringos; inspired a lifelong love of musicals, dance, music and the arts. Lenny touched the hearts, minds and spirits of generations. So blessed to be included among the many!
Kah Shepard, Minneapolis, MN, United States
The first time I heard what is now my favorite LB composition was when my brother sang it in his high school choir. They were the first below a collegiate level to perform the work, and they invited the maestro to attend. His office had to send regrets, as his schedule was committed about five years out at that point (early '70s)! They did send him a recording, which he complimented them on eventually. And the school did the piece again when I was in that same choir in 1976.
Gregg Porter, Seattle, WA, United States
First Oboe Solo
I played oboe in high school. My first oboe solo was playing Overture to Candide. I feel in love with Bernstein during our performance. It was as if the entire stage was on fire. Every musician had smiles on their faces when we were finished.
Diane Tate, Baton Rouge, LA, United States
Undergraduate Course at Indiana University
In the fall of 2018, a course covering the legacy of Leonard Bernstein was offered at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, by Professor Constance Glen. Bernstein's legacy includes not only his compositions, but his role as a conductor, pianist, educator, and social activist. Viewing his mission as one of "social change" through the arts, Bernstein's larger-than-life persona is fascinating to discover. This course covered his music, career(s), and his model for musical and personal activism. Students even got the chance to video conference with Bernstein's son, Alexander Bernstein!
Here, I have gathered several testimonies from other students in the class who have gotten to experience Leonard Bernstein through education, as well as my own testimony.
"I will always cherish my time and memories of this course. My time in this course has taught me not only how to listen to Leonard Bernstein's work more thoughtfully, but it has given me a larger and more intense appreciation for classical music as a whole. I especially am fond of the conversation we had with Leonard's son, Alexander. Alexander was humble and sweet telling stories of his father, while also showing us Leonard's passion and will to change the world." - Bailey Hull
"Our talk with Alexander Bernstein helped bring Leonard to life for me. It has been wonderful learning about his accomplishments and works, but connecting them all together with Alexander's personal stories was the most enriching part." - Lily Rexing
"It's been so cool to get an inside look at Bernstein's life and see how many accomplishments he had outside of just music" - Hannah Jacko
"This has been one of my favorite classes here, and I think one memory of many amazing ones that stands out was the memory Alexander shared with us during our video chat: he recalled a performance Lenny made in an empty bar in Jamaica shortly after Felicia passed away. Rhapsody in Blue. The overwhelming love Bernstein has conveyed through his music to fans has really changed my perspective on music for the better." - Kenzie Conrad
"When I think of Bernstein, I think of hope. He brought hope to the whole country with his Resurrection Symphony after JFK's death. I will always remember Bernstein as a light through all darkness." - Marie O'Neill
"This class has been absolutely eye-opening to the person Bernstein was. I loved how he was such a passionate artist and person. The passion came through in everything he did, every piece he wrote, and every piece he conducted. My absolute favorite piece to listen to, I feel, will now always be Kaddish or Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, all because of the passion and emotion he instilled in each." - Abby Tauber
"Bernstein brings so many gifts to the world. He leads people to think more about love and peace. His music heals the people from different cultures. I also think he is a hero who creates a musical melting pot!" - Ning Sun
"My favorite memory of our course is the valuable conversation we were lucky to have with Alexander Bernstein. He has so much of Leonard in him and was so willing to share amazing stories about their time as a family. They have the same vocal inflections, laugh and smile, as well as infectious enthusiasm to teach others. I have never known a love for Mahler so strong...I'm also now obsessed." - Hannah Estabrook
"Perhaps my most profound memories of Bernstein are from teaching and reading some of the more poignant essays and then sharing them with undergraduates. To this day, every time I read Lenny’s “This I Believe” to a class, the room gets very quiet as students try to digest the importance of the essay, the lively and inspiring commentary, and the fact that I’m talking about “love” in a college classroom. It is an important moment to realize that art, communication, and love all belong in the same realm and that we should talk about them.
Thank you, Leonard Bernstein, for such a rich legacy of music, conducting, essays, and video broadcasts of your brilliant explanations. You left us with so many things that we can enjoy again and again and I’ll always be grateful for that." - Professor Constance Glen
Bailey Hull , Bloomington, IN, United States
A treasure in so many ways
I remember nothing – not one detail. My parents said we watched Young People’s Concerts on TV when we were very young, but the only aspect that feels familiar is the idea of LB himself: electric, fascinating, always teaching. Leonard Bernstein's marvelous lessons have been a fact of my life all my life, like being right-handed or being Jewish or knowing how to read. Without a sliver of doubt, I know that everything I love about music sprang from LB’s lessons in one way or another.
My father gave me a treasure: a record of LB’s Omnibus lecture about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Lenny’s description of Beethoven could easily fit Lenny himself: “[T]he great artist… will give away his life and his energies just to make sure that one note follows another with complete inevitability. [He] leaves us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in the world… something we can trust that will never let us down.”
Merci, Lenny. Danke. Todah rabah. Thank you.
Sharyn Essman, St. Louis, MO, United States
"Next time through..."
I was hired as a percussionist in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on 12 September 1978. My first experiences with the orchestra began the next day under Lenny's baton at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. We performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Lenny's Chichester Psalms that Saturday, and repeated the program the next day at Carnegie Hall. After that performance, I had a few weeks to tidy up my affairs and move to Tel Aviv.
My first flight there was difficult. The scheduled flight was cancelled. I was booked on another flight that traveled through different cities than my original itinerary, and after a flight delay, I arrived in Israel later than planned. I was picked up at Lod Airport by a gentleman from the orchestra who said "We've got to hurry - rehearsal starts in ten minutes!" We were rehearsing Lenny's "Serenade for Violin" for our recording with Gidon Kremer. Rehearsal had already started by the time we arrived at Mann Auditorium.
As I got out of the car, another percussionist met me, placed chime mallets in my hands, and said "We have about twenty-four measures until your entrance!" (All this after thirteen or so hours on a Boeing 707!) I hurried onto the stage - trying not to be disruptive - and looked at my part. The moment came for me to play, and it passed just as quickly. Lenny stopped the orchestra, undoubtedly wondering where the chime part was. He looked at me, then turned to the violins and said something about their bowing (or something - I was too scared to really know), looked back at me, and said "Let's try that section again." As my entrance approached, I thought to myself "Don't miss it!" Of course, once again, the chime part was absent. Again, Lenny stopped. This time, he looked at the clarinets, said something to them about their articulation (as I recall), looked directly at me, and said "one more time - back to the beginning of that section." Now, the pressure was really on. "Here it comes, here it comes - and there it goes!" I missed it - again!
Lenny stopped the orchestra. He looked up at me and said "Ron, I know you just got off the plane from the states, but next time through, try to get a few of the notes, okay?" I had no idea he even knew my name! Talk about making a first impression... But, that's the kind of guy I remember him as being. Someone who treated his musicians as collaborators and colleagues. A larger-than-life man who was never Mr. Bernstein or Maestro, but just Lenny. The kind of guy who would share pizza and beer with you after a rehearsal. Who would delight his guests by improvising at the piano at his sixty-first birthday party. Kind, gentle, patient - a real mensch. A blessing to all who have ever known him or experienced his art. He will always be a part of us.
Ronald Horner, Somerset, PA, United States
Lenny, Dad (Gustav) and Leon in Tanglewood
From 1980-1996, my father, Gustav Meier, headed the Conducting Fellow program at Tanglewood's Berkshire Music Center. Bernstein was a frequent guest during the conducting seminars held at Seranak, Koussevitzky's former home. I didn't take this photo of Dad (in the middle) with Leon (left) and Lenny (right) as my Dad called him. This was one of only two photos my father had hanging in his office at the Peabody Conservatory from which he retired as Director of the Conducting Fellows Program at 85. I had the pleasure of sitting in these seminars over the years and watching my father or Bernstein or Ozawa coach young conductors. It was a magical thing to watch.
Dani Meier, Haslett, MI, United States
Little Lenny was always playing the piano
My grandparents were Benjamin and Esther Weissman, who owned American Textile Co, later Robert Allen Fabrics. My grandfather used to give a lift to Leonard Bernstein for his piano lessons from the lake in Sharon into Boston on his way to work.
The Weissman’s and Bernstein’s were next door neighbors in Sharon. My grandmother was friends with, and lived for some time in a building on Route 9 in Chestnut Hill, MA, with Leonard Bernstein’s mother until late in life. I can remember my grandmother late in life telling me that little Lenny was always playing the piano, and that if she knew that little Lenny would become Leonard Bernstein that she would have spent more time listening to him play.
Todd A. Wyett, Royal Oak, MI, United States
To the Heart
Leonard Bernstein is probably the only conductor who has made me shed a tear owing to beauty, truthfulness and pathos found in the music he was creating. A Brahms symphony from Vienna came at time of great personal fatigue. The Beethoven’s 9th from Berlin captured history as none else could. And then a piano accompaniment to Eileen Ferrell to the song “Some Other Time”; the level of truth, love, sadness and wistful memories in those two people is amazing and says so much. In each of these instances, the synergy of conductor and music reaches the heart and just grabs hold of you.
Lenard Bernstein represented all the best of Americans after the War. He drew people in and was not afraid of differences. He sought to share, learn and create new music which would both appeal to all yet respect respect where it was coming from. The world of classical music is fortunate that he stayed true to his tonal roots, and the desire to touch peoples hearts.
Paul Capon, Thunder Bay, ON, Canada
My great aunt worked for the largest sheet music publisher in NYC and introduced me to classical music at an early age. I became glued to the TV when the Young People Concerts started. I have listened to many of his compositions over the years and at age 69 remain a lover of music thanks in part to what I learned from him.
Photo: Young People's Concert, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archive
Jonathan Nechin, Hatboro, PA, United States
First Day of Orchestra at Indiana University
Leonard Bernstein was in residence at Indiana University for six weeks during the winter of 1982. I was a graduate student in clarinet performance at the university and I couldn't believe my luck when I found out that in my first orchestral experience at the university Leonard Bernstein would be using our orchestra for a graduate conducting seminar.
We were all waiting for the maestro to enter The Musical Arts Center stage to begin the session. It was brilliantly lit and we waited with great anticipation for what seemed to be hours but was more like thirty minutes before he entered.
In my recollection, he swept onto the stage with a burgundy colored jacket and cream colored turtleneck. There could not have been a more dramatic entrance in this young musician's eyes. The seminar was mesmerizing for me who, at the time, didn't know that my career path would be focused more upon conducting than clarinet playing.
I had the privilege of spending one more afternoon with the maestro, in a similar situation but this time he took the baton and conducted us through Mozart's Symphony No.39 in E flat Major. This work is sometimes called the "Clarinet Symphony" and I was, for a short time, the principal clarinetist under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. I'll never forget that moment as it was indelibly etched in my mind.
[Photo: Leonard Bernstein directs Indiana University students in 1982, courtesy of the IU Archives.]
Douglas Peterson, Port Orange, FL, United States
Leonard Bernstein Conducting Mahler Electrifying!
The most thrilling musical experience I have ever had was to see and hear Leonard Bernstein conduct the Mahler Symphony #1 at the Concord Pavilion.
Brian Endsley, Walnut Creek, CA, United States
A Lesson in Leadership
My first summer as a fellow at Tanglewood in 1978 featured an unexpected orchestral experience. Every Monday, assignments for the upcoming week were posted at the Main House. You can imagine everyone's surprise that an orchestra concert had been added with a surprise conductor — Leonard Bernstein! Maestro Bernstein had decided to perform his first public concert after the death of his beloved wife Felicia at Tanglewood, where he had been a student in the early 1940s.
We were thrilled but very intimidated as the rehearsals began the following day with only one day to prepare a very difficult concert: Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, Debussy's La Mer, and Schumann's Symphony No. 2. This was added to an already busy schedule of activities, resulting in 13 orchestra services (rehearsals and concert) in one week!
The fellowship orchestra at Tanglewood was extremely nervous because we had no time to prepare for our first rehearsal with the famous maestro. The opening of Debussy’s La Mer has a notorious cello section solo, one of great difficulty. The celli, while trying their best, sounded unprepared since they had only received the music the prior day. The maestro, with his half glasses perched on his nose, tried the passage twice, and simply stated, “It will be fine tomorrow,” and it was.
This was my first experience in front of a great leader. If Bernstein had kept at the celli to make it fine the first day, he would have lost his troops and created ill will for the entire orchestra of eighty members. He was aware that his decision to conduct a special concert had stressed the orchestra members and that they merely needed another day to practice in order to do their best. The resulting concert was a memorable evening, one that you wished would never end. This concert could have gone on forever.
Jan Karlin, Pasadena, CA, United States
As an almost 13 year old, I had to accompany my Mother at times to the Philharmonic Concert, to which she had a subscription. It was the day Bruno Walter was ill and a substitute conductor, Leonard Bernstein, took over. I clearly remember, at the end of the concert there was dead silence, then the entire hall erupted in applause and a standing ovation. My Mother said to never forget witnessing this momentous occasion.
[Photo: Leonard Bernstein, backstage at Carnegie Hall, being congratulated by New York Philharmonic musicians, following his debut performance, 1943. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.]
Nada Barry, Sag Harbor, NY, United States
Listening at the keyhole
During Leonard Bernstein’s residency at Eliot House as Harvard’s Norton Professor, he was scheduled to conduct Beethoven’s 9th with the Boston Symphony. The evening before, he had opened the rehearsal to the Harvard community. Although not a fan of the symphony, I went to the rehearsal and was swept off my feet. All the next day, I was obsessed with the question of how had LB done it? I had been thrilled by a piece I had always found disjointed and frankly annoying.
The evening came, and the time for the concert approached. I checked outside the entrance door to Eliot House. There was his limo, waiting in the falling snow. I HAD to talk to him about this, ASAP. Clearly he hadn’t left for Symphony Hall yet, and might still be—or not be—in his rooms. I listened hard at the door, but could hear nothing. So I leaned way down to listen at the keyhole, at which point, the door opened and LB suddenly appeared, in white tie, sharp as a tack, carrying a baton case.
I burbled out what was on my mind, and he didn’t skip a beat, but, utterly non-plussed, said it was all a matter of “tempo relationships”, and indicated that a number of famous conductors had had trouble putting that last movement together. All this as I saw him out to his car in the snow. He was kind and gracious, as though such obsession and enthusiasm were the most natural thing in the world, as was listening at a keyhole when something about Beethoven was eating you alive.
Jim Evans, Caxenovia, NY, United States
Happy Birthday, Mr. Bernstein!
As a young boy, no other classical musician - except my parents - inspired me as much as Leonard Bernstein. I watched his "Young People's Concerts" on television, conducted along to his records, sang along to his music, and decided that I wanted to be a conductor/composer/pianist/teacher, too. I never managed to become a conductor or composer (though I still, on occasion, draw the blinds and conduct along to recordings), and I am only the feeblest of pianists, but I have made a career of teaching - inspired, in part, by his example.
I heard Bernstein conduct in person for the first time in the summer of 1974, when I was just shy of my fourteenth birthday. Thousands packed the shed and every inch of the lawn at Tanglewood to hear an afternoon concert in which he shared the podium with Aaron Copland (Copland conducted Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony and his own "Appalachian Spring" and Bernstein conducted Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony and the "Adagietto" from Mahler's 5th symphony - not a bad first encounter). I seldom recall such an electric atmosphere at a concert.
I went on in the years to come to hear many rehearsals and concerts led by Bernstein - conducting the Boston Symphony, the National Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic (on one memorable occasion, standing with his arms at his side during the third movement of the Brahms 4th symphony - conducting just with his eyes), and the student orchestra at Tanglewood.
Equally memorable are my encounters with him before and after musical events: from watching him zoom into his parking space at Tanglewood in his tan Mercedes convertible (late, of course, for a morning rehearsal, but still willing to take the time to stop and greet me), to witnessing his kindness to my mother after one of his concerts (when she stumbled over her words thanking him for the performance he had just given, he gave her the singular honor of standing up, coming out from behind the desk that shielded him from a long line of well-wishers, and giving her a big hug and a kiss - a gesture that greatly moved me, and one that obviously piqued the curiosity of others in line: "Who is this woman that Bernstein is fussing over?").
Once, I even crashed a party in his dressing room. After accepting a glass of champagne and saying hello to Joan Kennedy, I discretely pulled back the curtain on the window and raised my glass to my poor parents, who stood outside among a throng of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the maestro. I had planned to attend what turned out to be his last concert on August 19, 1990 (my 30th birthday), but stayed home to celebrate instead - a decision I still regret. This year marks his 100th birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Bernstein!
John A. Maltese, Athens, GA, United States
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