My Epiphany with Lenny
Leonard Bernstein is everywhere this year. Actually, that’s an understatement—his 100th birthday is “officially” a two-year global celebration of the life and career of this 20th-century cultural giant, with more than 2,000 events performed by hundreds of musical organizations on six continents, from Kuwait to Kalamazoo. As a part of the centennial celebration, my own orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, has programmed nine of his compositions, including music from West Side Story in a live accompaniment to the film and a complete semi-staged Candide, in addition to inviting two of the Bernstein children and his biographer Humphrey Burton to speak at the concerts, and offering a curated exhibit of personal reflections from many musicians including our music director, Michael Tilson Thomas.
Also in 2018, his elder daughter Jamie Bernstein came out with her memoir, “Famous Father Girl,” and on the official “Leonard Bernstein at 100” website, dozens of musicians, actors, and fans have sent in their cherished memories and photos for display on the “Leonard Bernstein Memory Project” page.
With this plethora of Bernstein concerts, information, and memories, how could I possibly have anything to add?
But it’s precisely because of his unique ability to render every moment of music-making distinctly personal that every musician who has ever worked with him has a story to tell . . . or several stories. I was lucky enough to live in New York during the ’70s and ’80s when he really did seem to be everywhere: guest conducting the New York and Vienna philharmonics, attending concerts at Carnegie Hall wearing his unmistakable black silk cape, or walking down Central Park West from his apartment on 72nd Street toward Lincoln Center. Since I lived in his neighborhood, a “Bernstein sighting” was a moment of joyful serendipity.
More significantly, I cherish my memories of the two occasions when I was privileged to play in orchestras with him as maestro. As a frequent substitute cellist with the NY Philharmonic for a decade beginning in 1981, I spent the first eight years hoping to be hired when he was there as guest conductor. Finally in October 1989, I received a last-minute call to play an all-Copland concert, including El Salon Mexico, Clarinet Concerto, Music for the Theatre, and Connotations for Orchestra.
Here Lenny was in his element; having been Music Director for twelve years, he was very close to many of “his” musicians, and spent the first ten minutes of rehearsal hugging and kissing onstage. When the personnel manager suggested he better get going and start rehearsing, Lenny opened his arms wide and said to the entire group in a booming voice, “Consider yourselves hugged.”
During the first 20-minute break, instead of leaving the stage for a smoke, he sat down at the piano and murmured to himself, “Let’s see if I remember this from 50 years ago . . .” then began playing his own piano arrangement of El Salon Mexico that had been his favorite “party piece” as a young man. Thirty minutes later, the personnel manager was again forced to nudge him back to the podium, as I watched in utter amazement that Lenny was so lost in his own personal reverie that he missed some precious rehearsal time.
As conductor Lenny showed his multi-layered affinity for Aaron Copland’s work, and it was a musical delight to respond to his flick of the wrist and shake of the hips as he became a Latin lover dancing with his baton in El Salon. In the middle of rehearsing the complex, knotted, 12-tone behemoth that is “Connotations for Orchestra,” Lenny stopped for a moment and surprised everyone by saying, “My god, I just heard a quote from Appalachian Spring!”
During his talk at the packed open dress rehearsal, I fought back tears when Lenny picked up the microphone and spoke of his close lifelong friendship with the composer, telling 2,200 people, “I can tell you this because you’re family—Aaron is suffering from the issues facing many men of his age, especially memory problems . . . but when I called him and told him about the concerts we’re doing this week he perked up, he remembered who I was, and was so pleased we’re playing his music.”
Prior to that week with the New York Philharmonic, I’d had one other exposure to Lenny’s particular brand of genius, with my own heart-squeezing, goose-bump-raising visceral connection. This was a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, “Music for Life” on November 8, 1987. The orchestra consisted of musicians from many different groups around New York (I was principal cellist of New Jersey Symphony at the time). It was the first time the classical-music community presented a benefit for the care of people with AIDS, a disease that had devastated the arts world. Emotions were raw as we came together to honor our dear friends who had succumbed to this terrible disease.
The conducting duties were share by Lenny and James Levine, with soloists Yo-Yo Ma, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Murray Perahia, and Samuel Ramey, and was recorded live by Deutsche Grammophon.
Having seen and heard him conduct many times, I knew this was going to be something special, but I also remember having just a little bit of cocky, naïve skepticism and thinking, “Can he really make magic happen onstage? Ok, show me . . . ”
Participating in this event turned out to be a highlight of my musical life, and I vividly remember every detail of the rehearsals and concert. Lenny’s irrepressibly ebullient personality was on display at our first rehearsal in Carnegie Hall. The huge hyper-excited orchestra quieted down (the assembled masses could barely fit onstage) as James Levine began to conduct the first piece, Overture to Candide. Lenny was sitting in the audience listening and smoking his cigarette on a holder—I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, smoking inside the Carnegie Hall auditorium with Isaac Stern, all the administrators, and stage manager watching and no one saying a word!
I watched him listen intently, furrow his brow, and wave the cigarette in the air. He approached the stage, hoisted himself up with both hands (cigarette holder now clasped in mouth), and began making little gestures to the musicians as if he were conducting, but freed from the necessity of using a baton or beat pattern. He started walking through the orchestra, closing in on whoever had a solo or a prominent part, making faces and hand gestures to show the character of each tune as we were playing, with Levine silently waving his stick on the podium and getting more and more red-faced.
It went on like this until the end of the piece, Lenny conveying his animated interpretation to the musicians, oblivious to the fact that he had completely usurped Levine’s duties. Though he seemed taken aback at the time, during the applause for Candide at the performance he dragged Lenny onstage in a big bear hug proclaiming “He wrote this; he wrote this!”
The most thrilling moment of the concert for me was Lenny conducting the opening of the Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. The piece begins with the entire string section playing very soft sustained harmony, setting the mood for the solo trumpet up in the balcony. At rehearsals Lenny kept demanding a quieter, more magical sound from the strings, “No, no, no—too loud, too present, too earthly!” We tried again, barely touching our bows to the strings—”No, no! The sound isn’t right . . . it must be more ethereal, from the heavens, from a distant planet!” At the final dress rehearsal Lenny was still frustrated with our inability to produce the right sound, but was finally forced to move on and get to the rest of the program.
That night, at the start of the concert he walked out slowly and stood solemnly on the podium a long time, looking around the orchestra into each musician’s eyes and for me it seemed, right into my soul. The sold-out Carnegie Hall Gala audience was utterly silent as if holding their collective breath. Lenny put down his baton and raised his arms in a balletic, slow-motion, tai chi–like gesture. When they reached high above his head, one finger on each hand made an almost imperceptible motion—that was the downbeat. We all responded as one heavenly emissary, with a whisper that contained a universe of sorrow and hope. To this day I get chills recalling that moment, embodying the magic of Leonard Bernstein.