From the Archives: Making Magic
Posted December 19, 2023
By Craig Urquhart
(as printed in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Prelude, Fugue & Riffs)
Craig Urquhart and DG Executive Producer, Hanno Rinke, assist in holding Bernstein’s comments about Deutsche Grammaphon in Vienna. © Arthur Umboh
Leonard Bernstein and Deutsche Grammophon — now that’s a magical combination. Then add such orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony and The Santa Cecilia Orchestra; and such soloists as Christa Ludwig, Thomas Hampson, Krystian Zimerman, Misha Maisky, Gidon Kremer, just to name a few — and what a magical mix indeed. These were some of the essential members of Bernstein’s extended DG family.
But Bernstein’s DG family extended far beyond the orchestral and performing “stars;” it also included the team behind the scenes that realized the technically brilliant historic documents of the great concerts and operas that he conducted in the later years of his life.
When signing with DG in the mid-seventies, Bernstein required something no other conductor had ever asked for: that all his recordings be made from live concerts, not in the studio. DG’s acceptance of this requirement is a testament to the company’s forward thinking. It also presented the DG recording team with a whole new set of challenges. Thankfully, these challenges were not only overcome, but actually accomplished with utmost perfection.
Bernstein thought of his DG team, from the highest executive to the receptionist who answered the phone, as part of his creative support system. But it was his producers and recording team that he relied upon the most. He trusted that their skills would translate into a recorded document as close as possible to his creative imagination. Because of this closeness, the DG team really did become part of Bernstein’s inner circle. Bernstein often recorded with the New York Philharmonic in late November. So on many occasions the team would be invited to attend the Bernstein family’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade-watching party at his New York apartment. And when on the road, the team was often invited to after-concert dinners. This unique combination of professionalism and warm friendship thrived in all directions, and many of those friendships endure to this day.
I myself, as Bernstein’s assistant in his last years, had the good fortune to come to know so many of his DG team, and I have the privilege of still being in touch with many of them, who continue to be among the finest professionals in the field of classical music. We often see each other, drawn together by memories of great musical events, but also by remembering the many private moments of being with Bernstein. We especially discuss the playback sessions that could last for hours, as we all worked from the live performances to realize Bernstein’s vision. And then, after those long hours of demanding work, he would sit with us all and share a drink and a joke or two.
Even today, new friendships continue to be formed between the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. and Deutsche Grammophon as projects are conceived and presented to the public that continue Bernstein’s legacy. It is DG’s dedication to music and Bernstein that make possible such projects as the complete DVD releases of his performances of the Mahler Symphonies, Beethoven Symphonies and Overtures, the Symphonies of Brahms, and the great choral works recorded by the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Chorus as well as the recent box set of 60 CDs. The recorded legacy of the standard repertoire is large and vast, so Bernstein was particularly gratified that DG took such care when he recorded his own compositions with great orchestras and soloists. What joy he would feel today, knowing that a new generation of DG artists is continuing to discover and record his music.
So much effort by all parties went into making the recordings successful, and the demands of live recording were daunting. Yet there were those rare moments when it all came together without a hitch. I remember, as if it were yesterday, that Bernstein was conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Schubert’s Symphony No. 5. As we all sat and listened in the recording room, the team and I realized at the end of the performance that no retakes were needed — except for the last bars, which had been interrupted by early applause. The audience could not contain the excitement of hearing such beauty. Magic indeed!
Craig Urquhart was Assistant to Leonard Bernstein and is now Senior Consultant to The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.