All About Lenny

How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?                                                                                      – Samuel Bernstein

I’ve been reading Humphrey Burton’s biography of Leonard Bernstein in preparation for writing program notes for Candide, which I’ll be playing in March.  (It will be a fantastic concert with world class soloists – one of whom even sung with Lenny himself!  Please do come!)  Once again, I so enjoy becoming immersed in a piece of music, learning not only the notes, but also its story in the larger picture of the musical cosmos.  Bernstein is such a huge personality, such an important figure in American music, that learning about him and how he lived his life is wonderful and inspiring.  A good biography can be even better than a good novel, with the incredulity that ‘all this really happened!’ and the tantalizing possibility that ‘there could be connections to my life!’

Bernstein arrived on the world conducting scene in an overnight success story.   As a newly appointed assistant conductor to the New York Philharmonic, he was asked to fill in for an ailing Bruno Walter on November 14, 1943.  With only a few hours notice, the 25-year old Leonard Bernstein took to the podium.   The concert, which was broadcast live nationally, was a huge success.   He went on to an acclaimed conducting and composing career which included serving as the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic (1958-1969), conducting major symphonies around the world, teaching young musicians, and composing works for the concert hall, opera, theatre , and film.   His appearances on the CBS television series Omnibus as well as the televised Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic demonstrate a lifelong passion for teaching and sharing music with everyone.

He was at home on podiums around the world, but Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, always held a large piece of his big heart.  It was there, in the bucolic Berkshires of western Massachusetts, that he first studied conducting under Serge Koussevitzky in 1940.  When Koussevitzky died in 1951, Bernstein headed the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood for many years.  Throughout his busy career, he returned frequently to conduct and teach.  When he turned 70, in 1988, a four-day birthday bash was held at Tanglewood.  The collection of musicians, artists, and composers who came to celebrate is astonishing; Yo-Yo Ma and Midori played Brahm’s double concerto, Rostopovich flew in on a Concorde to play the epilogue of Strauss’s Don Quixote, Lauren Bacall sang to him, there were new pieces commissioned in his honor, his own music performed by many, including an orchestra of high school students from the Boston University Tanglewood Institute.  The gala finished with Seiji Ozawa addressing Bernstein across the crowd, ‘Tanglewood was your legacy.  We love you Lenny: you helped make our Tanglewood garden grow.’ Then he turned and conducted the finale from Candide, ‘Make Our Garden Grow.’  You can watch it here.  You might cry.

It was at Tanglewood , on August 19, 1990, that Leonard Bernstein conducted his final concert: he conducted the Boston Symphony playing Benjamin Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

My family, too, has a connection with Tanglewood.  My grandfather, who travelled the world but always made his home in the Berkshires, was an usher at Tanglewood for 30 years.  My mom remembers being a program girl in high school, handing out programs and collecting tickets at the concerts. Her sister worked in the cafeteria.  From their summer cottage on Stockbridge Bowl, the lake very near to Tanglewood, they could see the Koussevitzky house from the end of the dock.  I seem to remember a story that my aunt used to meet a boyfriend under a secret tree among the grounds at Tanglewood.  ‘Tree 15’ she called it, and never would say which tree it was.  It may be an ancestor of my tree.   After serving as an usher for so many years, my grandpa could choose the concerts he worked.  He got to the point that he couldn’t be bothered with anything but Beethoven Symphonies.

When the young protégé, Leonard Bernstein, first started appearing on the podium at Tanglewood, my grandmother was a bit sceptical.  As my mom said, ‘She just couldn’t understand why he had to dance around like that.’   My grandma was not alone in her opinion.  An early critic wrote that Bernstein spent most of his time ‘fencing, hula-dancing and calling upon the heavens to witness his agonies.’  Concertgoers were alternately thrilled or appalled when witnessing the ‘Lenny leap.’  Caught up in a conducting passion, he could make vertical jumps of over a foot.   In the end, Lenny survived the hard stare from my grandma and won her over, along with the rest of the music world.

I remember when he died.  It was my birthday, October 14, 1990.  That day, my orchestra at university was playing Aaron Copland’s suite from Rodeo.  When I heard that Bernstein had passed away, at first I thought, ‘Oh no, I hope it wasn’t our playing that did him in!’  But with time, I’ve come to cherish that I was lucky enough to be playing the music of his dear friend on the day Leonard Bernstein died.  It feels like it was a fitting homage to two giants of American music.

We hear his voice often at our house.  My husband has a 3-record set of Bernstein Conducts for Young People that his mother bought him as a child.   We listen to a lot of vinyl, and this is one of the most popular albums.   My kids know Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf as told by Leonard Bernstein.  My daughter, in particular, has always loved Peter and the Wolf and could listen to the record endlessly.  A few years ago I got her a CD version with Sir Peter Ustinov as narrator.  I thought she’d be thrilled to have a copy of her own.  After hearing it once, she put away the CD.  She won’t listen to the CD.   When I asked her why, she told me ‘the storyteller does it wrong.’  Sorry, Sir Peter, looks like Lenny’s got one over on you as far my daughter is concerned.

His daughter, Jamie, describes her father’s voracious love of life and music:

Leonard Bernstein thought the Beatles were great! And the Supremes too, and the Stones, and Latin American music, and African war chants and Louis Armstrong and Balinese gamelan and… well, that was exactly it: Leonard Bernstein loved music.  ALL of it.  And he gave a clear signal to his audiences that it was OK to love all music — and not to put a value judgment on one genre over another. He was the unsnobbiest person you could ever hope to meet. He loved people and was curious about everything.

In that spirit, I think he’d like this performance of ‘Mambo’ from West Side Story, performed by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony at the 2007 BBC Proms:

Now that’s an encore!

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