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
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
Making it Public
Tears filled my eyes as I listened to the tributes, music and voice of Leonard Bernstein. But you missed perhaps the most quintessential experience: the anonymous impacts from the Young People TV series. I was not or never was to be a musician. Life on a cattle ranch with a mother who was a known visual artist of enormous talent and energy, and yet, when that program aired, we as a family watched how Impressionism was created in music, structures and most of all possibility. Then, the dessert of a song. Tears still.
The image is my mother’s work- a thrilling symphony of color. Music played in stacks on the phonograph. Lenny wound have felt quite at home.
Patrice Pendell, Nagoya, Japan
New York Philharmonic Open Rehearsals
In the late 1980s, I commuted on one day each week from my home in Westchester County to Trinity Church, Wall Street, where I taught a regular class called "Yoga at Noon." Fortunately, I discovered that on that very same weekday, Philharmonic Rehearsals were open to the public, so I jumped at the opportunity to make a detour to Lincoln Center en route from Grand Central Terminal to lower Manhattan.
I will never forget those experiences. The most poignant memory is from the day that the orchestra was about to perform a composition by Aaron Copland.
Before Bernstein raised his baton, he paused, turned to face a suprised and silent audience, and then delivered what can best be described as a lament about his old friend and mentor, who was rapidly declining. (In fact, Copland was in his last months of life.)
I felt privileged to be in the presence of a musician whose passion for both music and humanity I will always admire.
A few months after that our teenaged son Michael played under Bernstein's baton at Tanglewood, and I suspect that Michael, now a busy professional orchstral violinist, must have been similarly inspired.
Thank you, Maestro!
[Photo: Bernstein with composer, mentor and friend, Aaron Copland at Bernardsville, NJ, August 1945., courtesy of the Library of Congress Music Division]
Nancy Roth, Oberlin, OH, United States
Meeting the Maestro
When the 1987 Tanglewood schedule was released, I noticed that Mr. Bernstein was conducting the August 15 concert of Mozart, Sibelius, and his Symphony No. 1. As that was a few days before our 9th anniversary, I thought having dinner at The Red Lion Inn and attending the concert would make for a nice celebration.
So I took a chance and wrote a letter to Mr. Bernstein to ask if my wife Angela and I could meet him after the concert, as I have two daughters for whom I'd like to make a gift of autographed copies of his book, The Joy of Music. To my pleasant surprise, I received a letter within about 2 weeks from Harry Kraut, saying that I should come backstage after the concert and ask for Craig Urquhart. We were thrilled!
With letter and books in hand (in addition to the two books for my daughters, I took along Mr. Bernstein's book, Findings), we headed for dinner and the concert. Following the concert - we usually sit on the lawn but sat inside the Shed - we went to the backstage area behind the Shed, where a long line of people were waiting to get backstage.
Rather than join the line, we went to the head of the line and presented the letter to someone - it may have been Harry Kraut, though I don't know for sure - and we were then taken to the room backstage where it almost seemed like a party was going on. Whoever escorted us in took me over to Mr. Bernstein, who was sitting at a table in a red robe, cigarette in hand, and introduced me as "The nice young man who wrote you the letter" or something along those lines.
I introduced myself to Mr. Bernstein, said how much we enjoyed the concert and expressed my appreciation for him taking the time to meet us. My wife Angela hung back to take some pictures, one of which is attached. Mr. Bernstein asked for my daughters' names and signed a copy of The Joy of Music for each of them, and then he asked for wife's name and signed Findings for her. After again thanking him for taking the time and the pleasure of meeting him, we made our exit. It was only a brief meeting, but it capped off a wonderful evening!
Leonard Bernstein with my parents at Tanglewood 1974
My parents, Leonard and Marion Burkat, were long time friends from Boston Latin School days and onward until the end of life. I know this picture was taken at Tanglewood in the summer of 1974, perhaps by Harry Kraut, another parental friend and colleague from my father's days at the BSO and then in NYC.
Caroline Burkat Hall, Danbury, CT, United States
My first view (in the flesh!) of Leonard Bernstein
Of all the people I've ever met, Leonard Bernstein has been my most significant memory (and I've even met the Dalai Lama.) The first time I saw him, for real, I was sitting in the parlor in Seranak, awaiting his arrival to give a conducting masterclass at Tanglewood.
I couldn't believe my luck to have been allowed to observe the class -- I was just a high school composition student, but since I (and two others) from the program had also done some conducting, we were allowed to sit in. I sat toward the back, looking toward the front of the house, and suddenly I saw a flash of red - that was Bernstein, dressed in a bright red turtleneck (in summer!), speeding past the front window on his way to the house! In the room, a recording of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, last movement, was playing on a record player.
Mr. Bernstein greeted everyone in the room and then his attention turned to the music. He raised his hand slightly, flattened and parallel to the floor, and said that Mozart exists somewhere between Earth and Heaven.
[Photo: Bernstein with his class of conducting auditors at Tanglewood, summer 1948. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Music Division.]
Lauren Bernofsky, Bloomington, IN, United States
When Leonard Bernstein took over my tiny 30-piece high school band
It was 1964 and in my first full-time teaching job as a band teacher in a small rural Oklahoma school district, I assigned watching the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts. My tiny band had only 30 members, and one of my college mentors who had come to give a clinic would always refer to them as “your little silver cornet band.” Looking at the piles of parent excuses on my desk the day after the first Young People’s concert, I saw it was not a popular assignment. Only three students watched the program. Yet, those three came into class with an evangelistic enthusiasm which was promptly met with skepticism by the rest of the students.
The next concert, four additional students watched, and those returned to school with an excitement that matched the others, and a curiosity began to spill over to the rest of the band. By the fourth concert, fully half of the band watched the concerts. The excuses still trickled in, however. But in those excuses, I began to see a theme, dads, who couldn’t or wouldn’t relinquish their TVs to watch the nation’s number one program, “Wagon Train.”
The last concert was coming—about Charles Ives, I believe. By this time all of the students were openly curious about this Leonard Bernstein fever they had seen take over their classmates. One day during class, the students asked to discuss how they could watch the last concert, and work around “Wagon Train.” They hatched a plan which was to pick a home where they could all go to watch the program, and those parents could either stay and be chaperones or go to someone’s home for “Wagon Train.” They worked it out, and that is what they did!
More that fifty years later, I still reflect on the fire that Leonard Bernstein ignited in that tiny band room. I just made an assignment, and Bernstein’s inspiration did the rest.
[Photo: Young People's Concert at Philharmonic Hall (Avery Fisher Hall), NY, circa 1964. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.]
Myra Starr, Okmulgee, OK, United States
Birthday Celebration Memories of LB
Here's a excerpt from an email I sent my friends today, with memories of my interactions with Lenny back in the 1970s, around the time he was working on the Norton Lectures:
I was and am truly lucky: not only was my life, as a child, deeply influenced by watching the broadcasts of the Young People's Concerts, from which I learned the love of all kinds of music, from Beethoven to the Beatles, from jazz to roots music — but years later, I was also fortunate to:
-Photograph him many times in both the concert hall and the recording studio;
-Engage with him in conversation about music and about politics (including Nixon!);
-Share a piano bench with him for a performance of "Trouble in Tahiti" at the (old) Whitney Museum in New York;
-Sit in the orchestra at the great Manhattan Center as he conducted one of the first-ever “quadraphonic” recordings for Columbia Records (with the orchestra completely surrounding him . . . remember quadraphonic recordings?);
-Be in the control room with him and producer John McClure to discuss playbacks during numerous recording sessions in New York over the course of two years (this was before Lenny left the Columbia label and resolved only to record complete, unedited performances);
-To my great joy and good fortune, get some informal conducting lessons from him (my first-edition score to his MASS is still filled with his conducting notations for me — and no, it’s not for sale);
-Argue good-naturedly with him about whether the narrator of his Third Symphony should be a man or a woman (although his wife Felicia narrated the first recording of the symphony, he later advocated for a male narrator, while I disagreed passionately — the nerve I had! But he listened to my arguments...);
and . . . and . . . and . . .
-On multiple occasions, he called me a friend.
Because of him, I have great personal memories: He introduced me to playwright Thornton Wilder in Danbury, CT, and to composers Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss at Tanglewood. One morning, when I dragged my tired ass into a New York recording session, and he saw the condition I was in, he wordlessly handed me his ever-present bottle of Ballantine’s Scotch. I didn’t drink Scotch, and I still don’t, but that morning, I did. He thought I should go to Curtis (where he went) and pursue music (I didn’t, probably because I was, and to a large extent continue to be, a fool). God knows if I can still even read music. That feels like a lifetime ago.
My photos of the concerts and recording sessions are now part of the Bernstein Papers at the Library of Congress: I had given them over to his office, with the proviso that license fees for publication be donated to the Tanglewood Music Festival Student Orchestra fellowships.
The photo included here is a candid portrait taken in 1975 (and unfortunately not well-scanned). He's holding worry beads given to him by Maria Callas. At the time, he and Alan Jay Lerner were having a "giving up smoking" competition, and Lenny was using the beads as a help to keep him from smoking. Of course, as we all know, it didn't work for long...
Kenn Rabin, San Anselmo, CA, United States
Lenny and me, Tanglewood, 1986
I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Leonard Bernstein on three occasions - Brahms 4 at the LAPhil Institute, and Copland 3 and Sibelius 2 at Tanglewood. The concerts were like rock concerts, and the rehearsals illuminating and riveting. His passion for and understanding of every nuance and emotional peak of the music was beyond inspiring. And he was very kind to and supportive of me.
Thanks for everything, Lenny!
Tod Bowermaster , Fenton, MO, United States
121 W 27 St, Suite 1104, New York, NY 10001
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