By Ken Daegeon Lee
In 1936, Bernstein started attending Harvard University as a general music major. At this point, Bernstein had never conducted; he’d composed one piece, and all he had was immense skill on the piano keys. However, throughout his career at Harvard and then the Curtis Institute of Music after that, Bernstein grew immensely as both conductor and composer. This development was caused in part by his chance meetings with two people; conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and composer Aaron Copland.
Dimitri Mitropoulos visited Harvard in 1937. Bernstein, as a budding master pianist, played a few pieces for him at a reception including a couple of his own compositions. Surprised at this young musician’s skill, Mitropoulis invited Bernstein to come watch him rehearse and conduct. Bernstein accepted; as he watched Mitropoulis energetically and emphatically conduct the orchestra, Bernstein realized the amount of skill and work required for the position. Afterwards, Mitropoulis told Bernstein that he had much talent. This recognition, as well as their friendship, helped Bernstein bolster the confidence to move against his father’s wishes and pursue a career in music.
Next, Bernstein met Aaron Copland at a concert; he got himself a ticket to Copland’s birthday party by gushing praise at the composer. There, Bernstein showed his prowess by playing Copland’s very own Piano Variations, a difficult, strange modernistic jumble of noise (that people usually ran away from). Copland and company was highly impressed; thus began their long relationship as mentor/mentee, lover/friend.
These two forces combined to propel Bernstein into his first contact with actual conducting – in 1939, Bernstein enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music to study composition and conducting. He did extremely well academically, to the point where he often argued with his teachers on their teaching methods and professional opinions.
In the summer of 1940, Bernstein took a six-week internship at Tanglewood under renowned conductor Serge Koussevitzky. His talent was instantly recognized. Using the baton-less style (as Mitropoulis did) Bernstein conducted the orchestra to great success; the following year, he conducted at Tanglewood again, this time for a crowd of 22,000 people. His encounters with Mitropoulis and Copland enabled Bernstein to reach Curtis and Koussevitzky, where his raw talent for conducting was quickly developed and refined.
Ken Daegeon Lee is a Psychology and Music double major at Davidson College. He also composes electronic music and plays alto sax in the jazz ensemble.
In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.
Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3 p.m. at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.