By Ken Daegeon Lee
Leonard Bernstein and Helen Coates, then his secretary, touched down in Israel in September of 1948. They took a precarious six-day drive down to Tel Aviv where the Israel Philharmonic (formerly named the Palestine Philharmonic) met them – this was the start of a series of concerts all over the newly founded state.
Bernstein remarked that he would “spend more and more time here each year… it makes running around the cities of America seem so unimportant – as if I am not really needed there, while I am really needed here!”
Bernstein and orchestra traveled in armored buses, instruments padded as well as possible. Bombshells and machine gun fire punctuated their performances. Once, a venue manager pulled Bernstein aside during a concert and warned of an incoming air raid; Bernstein promptly sat back down at the piano and kept playing. Bernstein risked death by first coming to Israel from safe America, and then by relentlessly playing concerts despite the war going on around them. This was truly a remarkable act of conviction and hope.
One of the highlights of his tour in Israel was in Beersheba on November 20th. Two days earlier, Israeli forces had taken this strategically and religiously important desert town. The United Nations ordered them to retreat, but the soldiers stubbornly dug in their heels.
Bernstein, hearing this, drove across the desert with the Israel Philharmonic and played a concert for those entrenched in Beersheba. The crowd consisted of soldiers of various nationalities, healthy and wounded likewise (they were transported there from a nearby hospital just for the concert); the crowd was estimated to be between one and five thousand.
For the first time in his life, Bernstein played three concertos in a row: Mozart in B flat K. 450, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and as an encore, Rhapsody in Blue; “a most extraordinary and ambitious encore!”
Egyptian scout planes saw the huge gathering and reported an impending attack in the area, to which Egyptian forces threatening Jerusalem withdrew and went on the defensive for no reason at all. But to Egypt’s defense; who would be listening to Mozart in the middle of the desert?
Bernstein readily faced potential death and injury in order to spread hope in Israel in the form of music. His conviction must have inspirited thousands if not millions fighting to survive in the new state.
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.