Jamie, Lenny and Me
19 Oct 2011
North Carolina Symphony Blog
The North Carolina Symphony's "Bernstein on Broadway" concerts that took place in Meymandi Concert Hall on September 23 and 24 were beautifully performed by the orchestra, vocal soloists and Maestra Sarah Hicks. The program consisted of excerpts from his most famous shows, On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide and West Side Story. Narrating the programs was the composer's first child, Jamie Bernstein. She was the perfect host--informative, personable and more than willing to join the singers in some theatrical routines. Because her father has meant so much in my life, I asked her if she could spare some time to chat with me about her famous father. She graciously agreed to have coffee with me at her hotel before her plane trip back to New York.

On a perfect autumn Sunday morning we met and the first thing I wanted her to know is that when I was in 8th grade I had a school assignment that asked the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" My essay was titled "I Want to Be Leonard Bernstein." From the beginning of my musical life he has remained my strongest influence, the musical surrogate father I never met. And because of that, as I explained to Jamie, I have always felt that I was a part of the extended Bernstein family. Of course, we immediately bonded. She didn't even wince when I caught myself calling her father by his nickname, Lenny. I found Jamie to be warm and wonderfully open about discussing one of the most talented, contradictory and fascinating people of our time. Music-lovers of my generation all fondly remember the thrill of his televised Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s and 70s.Above all, he taught us that classical music was just as entertaining as any other music. His brilliant explanations created an entrée for his listeners that enabled us to share his love and respect for the pieces he was conducting. From those concerts I became a fan of his conducting, his essays on music and his composing. He especially impressed me with his statement: " I want to be an all-round musician. I want to conduct, compose, teach, play and write about music. And I think I can do justice to them all." With that, I had found my Number One Role Model. As a result, I have been playing catch-up with Jamie's father for forty-three years. I have yet to catch him. But this does not disillusion me. By striving to emulate such an incredible musician, I have gone further with my gifts than I ever would have dreamed possible.

It turns out that Jamie was grateful that I did not ask the dreaded inevitable question that so many people beleaguer her with, "what was your father really like?" To me, that's a non-issue. I have read everything published by and about Bernstein and I feel that I understand his very dual nature as a conductor-composer. The conductor personality craves collaborative ventures and thrives on a life spent living the emotions of music by others. The composer's psyche yearns instead for solitary hours (weeks, if possible) when the revelations of the inner creative voice can be nurtured and allowed to slowly blossom. It's like having an extrovert-introvert divided soul that needs the extremes of public attention and private retreat. That is the part of Bernstein I very much do understand. But there are other areas in his life that have eluded me. My main questions for Jamie centered around my curiosity about her father's acceptance/resignation regarding his contemporaries' reactions to his most controversial theatrical works, "Mass," 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and A Quiet Place. All three of these pieces contain some of the greatest music an American has composed but you would never know this from reading the desultory reviews of their premieres.

I first heard "Mass" within a year of its first production. I immediately fell in love with its bracing mix of pop music styles and serious composition. When he was writing the piece, Jamie said that she was constantly bringing new pop and rock groups to her father's attention and that he was very open to anything that was excellent. In her words, "He was the opposite of a musical snob." He loved the best of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and many others. And Jamie felt flattered that her pop music heroes wound up influencing the content of "Mass," Bernstein's musical melting pot. However, the work was harshly condemned by its first critics as being both overly eclectic and an inexcusable act of tasteless indulgence by its "aging hipster" author. Harold Schoenberg, Lenny's long-time critical nemesis famously wrote in his New York Times review: " 'Mass' is a combination of superficiality and pretentiousness, and is the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies' magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce."
<February 2020>

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