I watched Bradley Cooper’s magnificent performance in Maestro, the Leonard Bernstein story, on Sunday night. Bernstein was the first great American conductor but also a gifted composer. He transcended classical music to become a popular icon. His protean form gyrating at the podium to motivate his players to even greater heights is an indelible memory of my youth.
I remember four points from the movie. Bernstein was, in the words of my wife Claudia, “entirely free.” He enabled his creativity by living on his terms, with joy and energy. Second, he was unwilling to change his name to hide his Jewish heritage. At a dinner, a distinguished European conductor advised him to drop Bernstein in favor of Burns, so that he could achieve his full potential. He did just fine as Bernstein; he leaned into his Jewish heritage by going to Israel to conduct the local Philharmonic shortly before independence, then again during the 1948 War for Independence, where his music entertained the troops at the front. Third, Bernstein's love for his wife, portrayed by actress Carey Mulligan, was never more evident than at the end of her life when she was dying of cancer, when he held her tenderly in his arms as if to keep her alive and next to him forever. Finally, he took advantage of opportunities. He got his big chance to conduct the Philharmonic when concert master Bruno Walter was ill; he performed magnificently and never yielded the baton.
Bernstein was a constant figure in our household. He was one of two Jewish American icons cited by my parents as worth emulating (the other was Sandy Koufax, star pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who refused to pitch on Yom Kippur even though his team was in the World Series). Bernstein’s West Side Story was a frequently played album. I was put in front of the television for his Saturday morning “young people’s concerts” at Carnegie Hall, he did 53 of them, starting in 1958 until 1972. I remember his explanation of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture. We all said, “that’s the theme for the Lone Ranger.” He explained that music is not about stories, it isn’t about anything, “it just is.” Music is “just about notes” to appeal to our senses through emotions. I remember him doing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and another segment on Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev.
I asked Gary Ginstling, now the President of the New York Philharmonic about the legacy of Bernstein at the symphony. He said that the incoming music director for the Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel Ramirez, is coming in part to carry on the legacy of Bernstein. Ginstling told me that he played the clarinet with Bernstein conducting in the Tanglewood Music Festival Orchestra and the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in 1988, “a transformative experience.” I had a small sample of the Bernstein magnetism when I was at Harvard. He stayed at Eliot House for a week, regaling us with stories of his undergraduate days, he graduated from Harvard College in 1939. Ginstling is bringing back the magic to the Philharmonic; I was at the symphony on Saturday to listen to Brahms and Beethoven, with four standing ovations for the pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. I just want to thank Bernstein for a lifelong love of classical music.
Richard Edelman is CEO.