Remembering Leonard Bernstein 20 years after his death
By David Amos
SAN DIEGO — I am often asked when I bring up the name of a famous person I happened to meet or work with, “What is he really like?” We are always curious as to the persons behind the public image; the stage and television personality the media wants us to see. Is that person as kind, unfriendly, funny, warm, austere, communicative, or strict as he or she appears?
Many times, the subject at hand is Leonard Bernstein. Yes, he is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating characters in the recent history of music. During his lifetime, he was colorful, controversial, charismatic, and adored and respected by practically everyone. I have often said that his may have been the most spectacular career in the history of music. A true legend.
No, I do not have a deep insight into Leonard Bernstein from any personal experiences. I did meet and chatted WITH him many years ago, but at that time our conversation was brief, friendly, and uneventful. I have, however, talked to many friends and colleagues in the world of music who knew him quite well, on and off the rehearsal room and concert stage. Every one of them had only good things to say about the man, the musician, his humanity and commitment to the arts, his many personal flaws notwithstanding.
I always visualized Bernstein as a figure larger than life. Actually, he was fairly small in size and figure. Are you as surprised as I was?
There have been several books written about Bernstein. Some are scandalous, probing into every available detail about his libido and other excesses. These treatises are informative, provoking, interesting, and at times, to my opinion, unnecessarily gossipy.
There is, however, a book I read years ago titled Leonard Bernstein, Notes from a Friend, by Schuyler Chapin, published by Walker and Co., New York, which approaches the few personal sides of Bernstein not found in other books and articles. Who is Schuyler Chapin? The name may not be familiar to you, but I am sure that you have been exposed at one time or another to his work. To quote from the foreword, written by Peter Ustinov, “Schuyler Chapin is a man very different by nature, endowed with an enviable lucidity and the extraordinary ability to adapt himself to circumstances almost invariably challenging. Before most of his friends knew him, he was flying planes to China during the Second World War, as part of the American effort to aid Chiang Kai-Shek. I can neither imagine him in such a role nor imagine his doing it less than brilliantly. He was at different moments head of the Masterworks Division at Columbia Records, program director of New York’s Lincoln Center, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, to say nothing of his multitude of jobs acting in various capacities on this or that committee or jury”.
We all know of Bernstein the conductor, composer, author TV personality, teacher and pianist. But above all, he was a communicator. His choice of words, both oral and written were masterpieces in conveying a certain feeling or situation concerning the matter under discussion. For example, look at the eloquence of this short phrase: “The artist will give away his life and energies to be sure that one note follows another with complete inevitability.” But, his lucidity did not flow without careful preparation. He meticulously wrote his scripts for the lectures of the Omnibus and Young Peoples’ Concerts series on television, at times revising the texts, and at other times seeking advice from colleagues.
This book avoids gossip, sensationalism, and the format of a biography. Instead, it is a series of personal accounts by Mr. Chapin, in his relationship as the executive at Columbia Records (which recorded most of Bernstein’s music, both as composer of his own works and conductor of many others), the Metropolitan Opera, an executor of Bernstein’s will, and as a collaborator on several live concerts and video recordings. But principally, as a friend.
There are a few spots in the book where I take issue. In my personal involvement with Israel, and the Israel Philharmonic recordings I did there in the 1980’s, I recognized and related to both people who are mentioned and the situations which I also experienced. Some of my recording sessions with the Philharmonic were made a week before or after the orchestra performed with Bernstein. Although his love for Israel, its people, and its music are not minimized in the book, I sensed a touch of superficial disparaging comments, which, in my opinion, were somewhat distorted. Chapin gives out praise, but with a touch of flippancy.
What I found most engrossing are Chapin’s personal accounts of Bernstein’s last year of life, his health, work ethic, stamina, and eventual demise.
Twenty years ago, on October 14, 1990, I was conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a work by Ernest Bloch. As you may know, Bernstein kept a close association with a few orchestras, namely the New York Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and London Symphony. The news of his death broke just before my recording session in London, where he held the title of Conductor Laureate of the LSO. There was a solemn pall in the musicians and management of the orchestra as I faced them. I was told that Michael Tilson Thomas, their principal conductor at that time, was disconsolate; he, as the rest of the people involved in the world of classical music could hardly conceive of life without a living Leonard Bernstein. It took quite a while to accept this.
Curiously, October 14 was a date of uncanny coincidences for Bernstein. On that day, he met Aaron Copland, (1937), made his triumphant debut with the New York Philharmonic, substituting for an ailing Bruno Walter (1943), and made his first TV appearance in Omnibus (1954), he met Schuyler Chapin on the same day (1959), and died on October 14, 1990. You are reading this article in San Diego Jewish World, released for publication on October 14, 2010.
Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world.
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