When I was 7 or 8 years old, I didn’t yet know the word “charisma” but I had experienced it. My first encounter with that kind of magnetism, one who had that glowing force-field that suggested limitless possibility, came when I first watched a Young People’s Concert on television. Leonard Bernstein seemed to stride — not onto a podium in a concert hall — no, into our Long Island living room, speaking to me about the wonders of music in tones alternately soothing and exhilarating.
By that time, Bernstein had been beguiling audiences with his musical prowess as composer, New York Philharmonic conductor, pianist and pedagogue for nearly two decades. Looking back from the distance of 2018, his centenary year, it’s easy to forget that behind that dazzle, the legends and the myths were hours of hard work.
As the New York Philharmonic’s archivist/historian, Barbara Haws had a chance to experience both sides of Bernstein.
“The public side was very flamboyant; I remember riding in the elevator with him when he was on his way to a rehearsal, and he was wearing a blue satin baseball jacket, sunglasses and baseball cap,” Haws told The Jewish Week in an interview about her 2010 book “Leonard Bernstein: American Original,” co-authored with Burton Bernstein, the composer’s brother. “But the scores show the workman behind all that.”
On the evidence of those scores and Bernstein’s notations on them, it is clear that he was almost never without a score at hand.
“He almost always had to have one with him, you’d think,” the historian said. “He would write down dreams he had had, poems, to-do lists. There’s one where he’s trying to figure out what stove to buy for his kitchen. He would note what he’s impressed with about the music, his own personal joy and reaction to the page he’s looking at. It’s always so thoughtful.”
The hallmark of the public Bernstein conducting persona was his passion and seeming spontaneity. But Haws said that while the music did genuinely move him, his notations also reveal the hard work that went into those seemingly spontaneous moments.
“When you look at a score,” she explained, “those moments are all well thought out; the tempi are mathematically defined, the precision is amazing.”
Another hallmark of Bernstein’s public persona was his Jewish identity. That, too, had a basis in his passionate character.
“His Jewishness was deeply inbred,” said Jack Gottlieb, who was Bernstein’s assistant for 10 years when the conductor was musical director of the New York Philharmonic. Four years later he was his editor, working with Bernstein for the rest of the maestro’s life. “He called himself a socio-cultural, geo-Judaic Jew.”
Speaking to The Jewish Week on the occasion of the maestro’s 90th birthday a decade ago, Gottlieb, who died in 2011, recalled: “He was not religiously observant in the conventional sense, although as a teenager he briefly thought he’d like to be a rabbi. In a sense, he did become a rabbi without portfolio, in his passion to teach and communicate. He always said he got that from his father Samuel, who was a Talmudic scholar. He said that if they were at the dinner table and someone would say, ‘please pass the salt,’ Sam would go into a disquisition on Lot’s wife.”
It is no less significant that Bernstein said that what initially aroused his passion for music was hearing Cantor Solomon Braslavsky presiding at Temple Mishkan Tefillah, the Conservative synagogue of his youth in Roxbury, Mass.
Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday is Aug. 25, so the bulk of the musical festivities will take place in the fall. However, here are some events to get you in a centennial mood.
Feb. 25: A 13-hour “Bernstein’s Mahler Marathon: The Sony Recordings.” Fred Child will host and introduce a unique event featuring the maestro’s recordings of the complete symphonies. Bernstein’s marked scores will be projected in real time during the marathon. Between each symphony, special guests will read selections from Bernstein’s own writings on Mahler, and video clips of Bernstein talking about Mahler will be projected. (This is a free event that will take place at the David Rubinstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.)
April 18: Michael Brown performs a program of solo piano music by, for and about Bernstein. Baruch Performing Arts Center (25th St. between Third and Lexington Avenues), 7:30 p.m.
Throughout the spring Trinity Church Wall Street’s many free concerts will include a cornucopia of 10 Bernstein-related events under the title “Total Embrace: Bernstein at 100.” The celebration launches during the April and May Concerts at One series in St. Paul’s Chapel (Broadway and Fulton St.), and concludes with a three-concert finale at Trinity Church (May 31-June 2) in Trinity (Broadway at Wall St.). With a special emphasis on lesser-known and vocal compositions, the concerts will feature Trinity’s resident contemporary music orchestra NOVUS NY and a roster of North America’s leading instrumental and vocal soloists. Pianist Lara Downes makes a guest appearance, performing the complete cycle of “LB Anniversaries” — works she has commissioned from living composers in tribute to Bernstein. There will also be a large helping of Mahler, underlining Bernstein’s legendary affinity with the Austrian composer. For more information including videos of previous performances, go to trinitywallstreet.org/music-arts/2017-2018.
May 19: “Wall to Wall Bernstein,” another marathon musical extravaganza, beginning at 3 p.m. at Symphony Space (95th Street and Broadway), symphonyspace.org.
Finally, it will require a small trip out of town to Philadelphia, but from March 16-Sept. 2, the National Museum of American Jewish History will offer an exhibit, “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” featuring many artifacts and heirlooms from Bernstein’s life and career; nmajh.org/Bernstein/.