Leonard Bernstein's 99th: Conversations With Jamie Bernstein, Alexander Bernstein, And Nina Bernstein-Simmons

Leonard Bernstein's 99th: Conversations With Jamie Bernstein, Alexander Bernstein, And Nina Bernstein-Simmons
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Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

photo by Paul de Hueck / Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office

Today would have been the 99th birthday for composer, conductor, educator, activist and humanitarian, Leonard Bernstein. This international icon’s accomplishments include becoming one of the first, great American conductors as well as an educator that attempted to narrow the gulf between classical and music’s other genres.

His Young People's Concerts became a staple on CBS television, and his most popular works include West Side Story, On The Town, Candide, his once again relevant work Mass, and his “Symphony No. 3: Kaddish to President Kennedy,” which he created following that infamous assassination. And Bernstein further immortalized George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” through his classic recording of the piece with The Columbia Symphony.

The socially-conscious Bernstein also was an active protester of the Vietnam War and was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement. In 1989, he refused the National Medal of the Arts to protest the George H.W. Bush administration’s policies regarding the NEA.

On Friday, September 22, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present “Leonard Bernstein at 100, ” launching a two-year, international, six continent celebration with over 1,000 events in honor of the music legend.

Photo by Paul de Hueck / Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office

Conversations With Jamie Bernstein, Alexander Bernstein & Nina Bernstein-Simmons

Mike Ragogna: In one year, August 25th, 2018, it would have been your father's 100th birthday although the celebrations already have begun. For a moment, put aside you family perspective and offer some thoughts on what Leonard Bernstein has contributed to culture.

Jamie Bernstein: Our dad's prodigious musical gifts sent him in many directions. As a conductor, he shared his deep understanding and passion for the symphonic repertoire with audiences around the world. Through his audio and visual recordings, he left the world an invaluable representation of the canon. As a composer, his range was unprecedented: symphonic works, musical theater, ballet, opera, film scores, and more. And that's just the music! What makes Leonard Bernstein unique was that in addition to all his musical contributions, he also made such significant contributions as an educator—The Young People's Concerts on CBS television, the Norton Lectures at Harvard, and more—and also as a lifelong champion of human rights and social justice.

Alexander Bernstein: Leonard Bernstein's unique combination of talents and passions made for an American musical giant, reaching people world-wide. As a composer of works in a wide range of genres and styles, though always his, he was able to bring a jazzy sound to the concert hall, a symphonic structure and sensibility to the Broadway stage. He championed tonality when it was unfashionable in academia. As the first great American conductor to be appreciated worldwide, he opened the door for so many to follow. As "America's Music Teacher," he brought the excitement of "serious" music to television audiences of all ages. His educational legacy continues with Artful Learning [artfullearning.org]. And as a social activist, he furthered the progressive causes he cared so deeply about.

Nina Bernstein-Simmons: I can’t think of anyone with the possible exception of Gershwin before or since who so seamlessly bridged the chasm between “high culture” and “popular culture.” By this I mean music for the concert hall/ballet on one hand, and that for the Broadway stage/Hollywood screen on the other. When you look at a show like On the Town from 1943, there are long dance sequences set to complex orchestral music juxtaposed against goofy sketch-comedy numbers. That was new. Our father didn’t see the point of qualifying music as “classical” or “popular.” If it was good, it was good. And especially in music for theater, if the music served the story it didn’t matter what style or genre it was born of. So you have jazz in his symphonies, rock ’n’ roll in Mass, and what no less than director George Abbot referred to as “all that Prokoffiev s**t” in On The Town.

MR: In your opinion, what were some of his most important recordings and why? What are some of your favorites and what memories do have associated with them?

JB: I personally love my dad's recording of Beethoven's “Piano Concerto #1,” with him conducting The New York Philharmonic from the piano, because I overheard him practicing the piece at home and fell in love with the music that way. I also love his recording with The New York Philharmonic of Berlioz’s "Symphonie Fantastique." My brother and I accompanied our dad and that orchestra on tour in Europe in 1968, when we were kids. Hearing that symphony in each city we visited left us with a lifelong love for the piece. We know every note!

AB: His Mahler recordings, both early and later are obviously important and stunningly good. “Rhapsody in Blue” comes to mind; he plays it so well. The orchestra is right there with him. And Gershwin is in his bones. I admire him for unashamedly recording his own works. I listen to “Chichester Psalms” and “Serenade” all the time. Beethoven 3 and 6, Brahms 4—with The New York Philharmonic—are particular favorites of mine. I remember, as a teenager who had experienced a rocky year or so with my Dad, listening to the "Pastoral" with him and reconnecting.

NBS: I know for a fact that of all his recordings, he was most proud of Beethoven’s “Opus 131” with The Vienna Philharmonic strings. That piece, one of the very late quartets, challenges any chamber ensemble with wild meter and tempo changes, and sudden mood swings. For a full orchestral string section to sound as tight as a group of four is truly a dazzling accomplishment. And the effect is thrilling.

MR: What was it like growing up in the Bernstein house? How musical was the atmosphere and what were some of your favorite memories of him as your dad?

JB: Music was definitely our "ground of being"—like air to a bird, or water to a fish. A favorite memory of my dad is of him going to the nearest keyboard—often the harpsichord in our library—to play a snippet of whatever we were talking about: anything from a Mahler symphony to a TV jingle to a song from the latest Beatles album.

AB: It was mostly absolutely wonderful. Full of fun, games, friends, travel, joy. He was close to his siblings, so they were around a lot. His pals Betty Comden and Adolph Green were ever-present. So many others... Our mother managed all the comings and goings of the household, meals and traveling with grace and a terrific sense of humor. They loved each other deeply. LB did travel a lot. But when he was home, he was really there for us.

The music in the house was his music, more often than not—playing us something he had just written or listening to a test-pressing of a new record. But there was sometimes a new Beatles recording to listen to, or a friend would be over and they would play four-hands after dinner. And we always sang carols at Christmas.

NBS: Growing up, our house felt to us like the defacto gathering place for the smartest, funniest people in the world. Our mother, Felicia Montealegre, had a great talent for entertaining. She made everyone who came over feel welcome and special. So on evenings when our father didn’t have a concert, there would be dinner parties. And after dinner, he would go to the piano and play anything from Chopin Mazurkas to old novelty songs, often accompanied by Adolph Green and Betty Comden who grew up listening to a lot of the same records. No one wanted those evenings to end.

Music for our father was not just a job or an entertainment: it was a part of his whole organism; something that couldn’t be turned off. It lived and breathed in him all the time. And even if the house was quiet, he would be hearing music in his mind—either studying a score for an upcoming concert or composing.

One time, he came into my room where I was doing homework. I had the Classical music station on the radio. He said, “How can you concentrate on your work when that’s on?” I said something to the effect that I wasn’t really listening to it but that it relaxed me. Well, I got a thorough lecture about the importance of active listening. And as for “relaxing” part, he pointed out that Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” is hardly relaxing. Point well taken. Radio off.

MR: Sony Classics is releasing a 25-Cd box set of his works from between 1960-1974 that includes his theater works, songs, chamber and concert music. It also will contain a 2-CD compilation of artists performing his music such as the Marsalises, Andre Previn and Dave Brubeck. How involved were you with this assembly and were there any discoveries or conclusions you’ve made about your father and his work when this body of work is looked at as a whole?

JB: We were not involved in bringing this compilation into existence, but we're thrilled that Sony has done so! There are some gems in there that aren't well known, for example, the incidental music LB wrote for Barrie's play of Peter Pan.

AB: We weren't involved in the compilation of the box set but, boy, are we excited about it! It's amazing to see the variety in his work at the same time as hearing his distinctive sound. Another paradox: His music is so difficult to play and to sing but is also so accessible.

NBS: We weren’t involved in the assembly at all. In fact, the jazz recordings were mostly new to me.

West Side Story

West Side Story

West Side Story's Broadway musical version album cover

MR: West Side Story—both the movie and the musical—is entrenched in American culture, a favorite among many generations. It’s most likely that its Romeo & Juliet theme continues to make it relevant but what do you think it is about this particular Bernstein collaboration with Stephen Sondheim and others that made it so enduring? And what is the story behind that collaboration? What was their creative process together like?

JB: This set of questions would require an entire book to answer! What makes the work enduring? Yes, the thematic material—unfortunately, hatred and intolerance are with us every bit as much as they were in Shakespeare's time. The music our dad wrote is nothing short of thrilling; how ingenious of him to represent The Jets with be-bop jazz and the Sharks with Latin rhythms. The music tells the story as intensely as the words do. And the Jerome Robbins choreography does the same thing. It tells the story through movement. The ambitious interweaving of music, dialogue and dance to tell a story about love attempting to survive in a hate-filled world makes West Side Story different from any other Broadway musical.

AB: Firstly, the collaboration includes all four authors! The book, dancing and songs work together seamlessly. The Bernstein/Sondheim songs have such energy and authenticity. They're very daring, too; operatic sometimes, all-out-Latin, jazz, etc.

NBS: Actually, Sondheim was brought onto the team relatively late in the proceedings. The original collaborators were Bernstein, Jerome Robbins—whose idea the show was in the first place—and Arthur Laurents. It’s been said that the show’s success lay in the fact that, fundamentally, they were all writing “the same show.” Many times, a show will suffer from its authors having different agendas or visions for a work. Candide is, I think, an example of that. Lillian Hellman was writing obliquely about contemporary American society and politics, while my father was writing a love-letter to Europe.

For West Side Story, all the authors shared a vision of a heart-breaking romance set within a vicious neighborhood race-war. Robbins’ choreography is Bernstein’s music made manifest. And Laurents’ snappy, jazz-inflected dialogue takes us straight to that world. We believe it 100%.

MR: Did your father enjoy collaborations?

JB: Yes, he loved collaborating with others; that's what drove him back to musical theater—Broadway, opera, ballet -- over and over again.

AB: He LOVED to collaborate! I think that's partly why he kept going back to musical theater composing—against the wishes of many, like his conducting mentor, Koussevitsky, and many critics. He had a hard time working doing anything at all alone.

NBS: My father thrived on collaborations, whether he was writing a show or making a recording. In fact, you could argue that every concert performance was a collaboration with an orchestra.

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

Photo by Al Ravenna, 1955 / Courtesy of the Library of Congress

MR: Let’s talk about your father’s being one of the great composers of his time. What was his compositional creative process like?

JB: He might look like he was asleep on the couch but, actually, he was working out music in his head. Then he'd go to the piano, work it out further, and write it down. He worked best very, very late at night. He wasn't much of a sleeper!

AB: His composing process was pretty mysterious. He said he would lie on the couch, almost asleep, and a tune or just an interval would come to him. He'd get in a "zone," I suppose, and many hours later, he'd notice he had filled pages of manuscript.

NBS: My siblings will remember a time when music came easily to him and the composing process was a joyous one. The first piece I remember him writing was Mass. In that case, the music came easily enough. But the piece was so complex and thematically charged, dealing as it did with a crisis of faith during a time of socio-political unrest. Plus it lacked a conventional story-line and with the exception of brief meetings with Stephen Schwartz, he composed it alone. He knew he was trying something daring and he feared the public might not “get it.” Adding to the pressure, Mass was inaugurating The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. It had to be important.

The next piece I remember him writing was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We all know how that turned out. As many of us know, the score was gorgeous. But it couldn’t survive the problems in Alan Jay Lerner’s book.

His last large-scale work, A Quiet Place, was a torment to him. The notes did not come easily. He was still grieving from the death of our mother and in choosing family death as the subject of his new opera, he suffered anew with every note. Ultimately, the opera was beautiful, excruciating, and cathartic. But the process was agony.

MR: As we touched on, Mass contained additional material from Steve Schwartz. It also featured a contribution from Paul Simon in his lyrics, "Half of the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election. Half of the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.” At the time of its release, Mass seemed to be an overt reach to the younger generation. What are some memories and insights into that project?

JB: Mass was definitely ahead of its time and it seems as if the world is finally ready for it. During the centennial period, there are so many productions of Mass happening all over the world and we couldn't be more thrilled. For many reasons, it's our dad's most personal piece. It reflects his own multifariousness, not only through its use of orchestra, chorus, Broadway-style singers, rock band, marching band, and kids' chorus, but also through its fierce questions about faith and human existence, and its strong anti-war expressions.

AB: I remember him working furiously on the piece until just about opening night. Yes, he was reaching to a younger generation, but he was always doing that, no matter what he was working on. The players, cast, and dancers were all young and he adored them. He was miserable about the mixed reviews. How we wish he could have seen it at the Vatican! And now, it is being performed everywhere.

NBS: Jamie and Alexander were 18 and 16 years old, respectively, in 1970. Culturally, our father looked to them as weathermen, so to speak. Both our parents had always been deeply committed to social justice. When they went to Washington to protest the Vietnam war, they brought Jamie and Alexander with them. It’s no wonder that Mass is infused with the sensibilities of the younger generation, compelled to action as young people were by the foreign war and the struggle for civil rights here at home.

Leonard Bernstein with The New York Philharmonic on TV camera

Leonard Bernstein with The New York Philharmonic on TV camera

Photo by Bert Bial, 1958 / Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives

MR: Which orchestras did Leonard most like to conduct? And how did he prepare for his concerts? Did he prepare any differently when it came to those performances becoming records or when he was in the studio with the intention of creating an LP?

JB: The New York Philharmonic, which he led for so many years, was the "home team." But as the world knows, he had a very special relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic. Other favorite orchestras included the Boston Symphony, which he conducted nearly every summer at Tanglewood, and the Israel Philharmonic.

AB: He loved so many orchestras, for various reasons. The New York Philharmonic, of course, was "his" orchestra as music director. The Boston Symphony—his "home town" orchestra; "Koussy's'" band, Tanglewood; The Vienna Philharmonic...it started with tension but became an absolute love affair. Some of his greatest performances: Israel Philharmonic. He conducted them before '48 when they were The Palestine Orchestra. Lots of history. Any student orchestra... He was at his happiest working with young musicians.

NBS: He used to dodge that question by saying it was like being asked to choose among his children. A diplomatic response, but I really think he loved them all equally. As for other composers, his affinity with Mahler is, of course, legendary. Copland, Stravinsky, and Prokoffiev come to mind.

MR: Which were some of his own favorite works? How about by others? Which great composers and contemporaries did he admire?

AB: He could never choose a "favorite." He said it would be like choosing his favorite child. He also said, "Whichever I am conducting at the moment"—his or another's. His love of composers ran the gamut from Haydn to Thelonius Monk to Mahler to Irving Berlin to Stravinsky. Among contemporaries, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and Ned Rorem.

JB: He was famously a big fan and advocate of Gustav Mahler. He felt an almost mystical kinship with the Austrian composer, not only because of the music, but also because Mahler was for a brief time the conductor of LB's own New York Philharmonic. LB essentially re-introduced this composer to The Vienna Philharmonic, who had turned its back on him for decades. LB's recordings of the Mahler symphonies with The Vienna Philharmonic are among the greatest artistic achievements of his life.

NBS: Again, he would dodge that question by saying it was like being asked to choose among his children though I really think he loved them all equally. As for other composers, his affinity with Mahler is, of course, legendary. Copland, Stravinsky, and Prokoffiev come to mind.

MR: Which of his works do you think still resonate or will stand the test of time? Which works do you think flew under the radar and deserve more attention?

JB: West Side Story will be with us always. I think everyone would agree. Candide is also much beloved by musical theater fans as well as opera fans, and is having an astonishing number of performances worldwide in the centennial period. His orchestral works are less known, but Serenade is starting to be discovered in earnest. It's my favorite. I also love his jazz-inflected composition, "Prelude, Fugue & Riffs."

AB: I think all his works are timeless. Even a supposed "dated" show like Wonderful Town sounds fresh every time. Serenade deserves more attention, probably. Also A Quiet Place [opera]. Mass is finally getting it. I love the songs from his Peter Pan.

NBS: It’s good to see that Mass is getting performed so frequently during the centennial. This work has had a difficult time of it. We think that Mass was probably ahead of its time, both musically and in terms of scope. No one was mixing genres in those days—not that they’re doing it so much now, either. But back then, it was radical. And so was the non-narrative structure. The piece follows the Catholic liturgy and, apart from that, the only “story” is that of a young priest who grows increasingly burdened by the weight of his responsibility to his restless, demanding flock.

Meanwhile, the piece is enormous. It requires an orchestra, a marching band, a rock band, a blues band, a boy’s chorus, an adult chorus, a “street” chorus, and dancers. That’s a lot of people to pay! So it’s great to see that producers are betting on a public success.

MR: Were there any works that particularly challenged Leonard and do you remember how he got over those hurdles?

AB: There were musical theater collaborations that were so challenging that the hurdles were insurmountable. Those were crushing for him—The Skin of Our Teeth, The Exception To the Rule/Road to Urga. It was a blessing that he could start conducting again after those failed efforts. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was terribly difficult for him. But I think there were different kinds of challenges for every piece he wrote, and different ways of getting through them.

NBS: One of the most exciting things to watch in concert was when he conducted a piano concerto from the keyboard. It was a really good trick. But his confidence at the piano started waning in the ’70s; he claimed his fingers got thicker. So he rose to the occasion for a last couple of Mozart concerti with the New York Philharmonic and then retired the trick.

MR: Was there any creative project Leonard wanted to get to but wasn’t able to before he passed?

JB: In his final decade, he was trying hard to find a collaborator to work with on an opera centered around the Holocaust. It didn't happen.

AB: He was searching for a way to create a piece about the Holocaust before he died.

NBS: He had high hopes of writing an opera about the Holocaust, which would be sung in multiple languages. He never found a librettist, though, and he ran out of time.

MR: What was Leonard Bernstein's greatest advice to you about creativity, music, etc. that he passed on to you?

JB: Something he said to me was, "Treasure your memories." Maybe that has something to do with why I've now written a memoir, coming out next year on Harper Collins.

AB: I am not a musician but he certainly instilled a love of music—all kinds of music. He saw creativity, asking questions without ready answers, as the key to a life of learning; the joy of play/work/fun all being one thing. He felt passionately that making music was not an isolated activity. It was connected with every other part of life—other arts, teaching and learning, politics, building bridges among people.

NBS: I don’t know if he ever told me this outright but if his own life was an example to live by, then I would say it was this: “Listen actively, read critically, look for the truth. Love passionately, share generously, and find beauty wherever you can.”

MR: Did you take his advice?

AB: In many ways, yes. Certainly as far as education is concerned. And the cause of social justice.

NBS: I like to think so!

MR: What is your own advice to new artists of all genres? How about specifically for those pursuing a classical music future? What might your dad have said to new artists?

JB: In the mid-20th century, so-called "serious" composers were supposed to write only 12-tone music—that is, music not in any key, without any melodies. Although our dad was perfectly capable of using the 12-tone technique and used it here and there, he refused to write that way all the time. He liked writing tunes! And he was very good at writing tunes. But as a result of his refusal to give up writing melodies, he was rejected by the musico-academic establishment during his lifetime. He would have been honored to be included in their pantheon but he wouldn't give up writing a tune. Now, as we pull away from the 20th century, "serious" music is no longer in this 12-tone straitjacket, and the music of Leonard Bernstein is appreciated more and more with every passing day. So I would say to young striving artists don't be bullied by the people in charge. Stick to your own way of doing things if that's what you really believe in.

AB: He said, "Make music in the world." Don't become isolated. Teach. Learn about the world outside of your own artistic endeavors. Read. Write. Communicate. Love.

NBS: All of the above. It’s a very tough time for classical musicians. For audiences, listening requires concentration for long periods of time. That is in ever-dwindling supply, especially among young listeners. Watching The Young People’s Concerts on DVD would help train young ears but there doesn’t seem to be enough attention even to watch those programs with their long, uncut sequences and “dry” lectures.

Certainly, if he were around, my father would be dismayed by the shrinking concert audience. But to those pursuing a career in classical music, I’m sure he would exhort them to turn the tide by playing with extra passion. What he would be thrilled about is the El Sistema project that’s taken hold all over the world. My sister, Jamie can tell you more about that.

MR: What projects are you all currently working on?

JB: My book coming out next year.

AB: Artful Learning. [ArtfulLearning.org] His vision of the arts and the processes of the arts being at the center of all learning is now manifest in schools across the country. Students and teachers become extremely engaged, creative, and come away with deep understanding of content. Yes, test scores, etc. are up and data is terrific, but I believe that is a lagging indicator.

NBS: Nothing related to this field.

MR: Which 100th anniversary celebrations are you most looking forward to?

JB: The Grammy Museum's traveling exhibit about LB. The opening is at The Kennedy Center in mid-September. Can't wait to see it. Also, Gustavo Dudamel conducting Mass in Los Angeles!

AB: So hard to choose! New productions of shows, new ballets, performances of his symphonies...

NBS: I’m really looking forward to the Grammy exhibit. I’ve never seen Aunt Clara’s piano–the legendary upright that set the whole story in motion. I think his FBI files will be there. And a West Side Story karaoke room!

Leonard Bernstein at piano

Leonard Bernstein at piano

Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office

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