WDAV Blog

Bernstein: Mahler, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Additional Conducting

By Casey Margerum

While Bernstein was with the New York Philharmonic, he also had several major conducting accomplishments away from home.  Among these were the debut of his Kaddish Symphony in Tel Aviv, his performance of Falstaff with the Metropolitan Opera, and his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra.

While Bernstein was with the New York Philharmonic, he also had several major conducting accomplishments away from home.  Among these were the debut of his Kaddish Symphony in Tel Aviv, his performance of Falstaff with the Metropolitan Opera, and his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Of his outside conducting, his engagements with the Vienna Philharmonic were among the most important.  His debut in Vienna had actually been in 1948, but the post-war atmosphere made the experience unpleasant.  However, when Bernstein returned to conduct Verdi’s Falstaff in 1966, he fell in love with the city.  The opening night received half an hour of applause and 48 curtain calls. 

Bernstein would return to Vienna the next year to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and again in 1968 for Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.  In 1967, the Vienna Philharmonic also performed at Lincoln Center, and Bernstein hosted a Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic called “A Toast to Vienna in 3/4 Time.”  He would return to the beloved city periodically for the rest of his career.            

Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus

Bernstein’s work was also closely linked to Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), whose Resurrection Symphony was Bernstein’s signature piece.  Both artists were Jewish, and both spent their lives torn between composition and conducting.  Mahler’s music is marked by its use of extremes and its heightened expressivity, and he used music to explore philosophical questions. 

After Mahler’s death, anti-Semitism and the public’s inability to understand his compositions led to his obscurity.  Bernstein, however, worked tirelessly to reintroduce Mahler to the world.  He made multiple recordings of Mahler’s compositions. 

He hosted a Young People’s Concert titled “Who Is Gustav Mahler?” and wrote articles about him.  He conducted Mahler with over-the-top gestures to mirror Mahler’s use of musical extremes.  Without Bernstein’s work, we may have never learned how to appreciate Mahler’s genius.

Casey Margerum is a senior English and music double major at Davidson College. She sings with the Davidson College Chorale and Collegium Musicum, and she intends to pursue graduate studies in vocal performance next year. 

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.

Bernstein and Peace

By Ken Daegeon Lee

Leonard Bernstein was a large advocate for harmony. He continuously traveled to prominent parts of the world to share his music in joy and peace. His previous visits to Israel are a large example of his dedication to his morals and beliefs. Even in the later years of his life, he continued to share music in moments of historical importance.

In 1985, Bernstein traveled back to Japan to appear in the Hiroshima War Memorial event as part of his Journey of Peace, a series of concerts promoting its title. The Hiroshima city park was packed with 55,000 people commemorating the 40th anniversary of the atomic bomb detonation.

At exactly 8:15am on August 6th, the memorial was started; Bernstein performed his own Kaddish. Locals applauded it for 10 minutes after its conclusion. It was originally dedicated to John F. Kennedy after his assassination and named after a Jewish prayer chanted at every synagogue service, and despite the gap in cultural and historical understanding the Japanese audience was extremely moved.

In his opening speech, Bernstein said, “I hope it does some good to grant us the wisdom that war is obsolete and that we should stop all this nonsense once and for all.”

Furthermore, in 1989, Bernstein spent Christmas in Berlin. He performed in both West and East Berlin until the wall was fully abolished on Christmas Day. The piece he chose was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In the Ode to Joy, he changed the words from Freude (joy) to Freiheit (freedom) in accordance with the symbolic event.

This choice was extremely well received; “this Christmas Day concert was the highest point in Leonard Bernstein’s public life as a citizen of the world.” Bernstein himself chipped a brick off of the wall that had finally been brought down.

            As such, Leonard Bernstein was constantly involved in spreading his message of peace across the world through performing music, positively influencing many individuals, and left a great legacy behind him.

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.

Young People’s Concerts: Bernstein As America’s Classical Musical Ambassador

By Isaac Mervis

In terms of the lasting impact that Leonard Bernstein has had on American music, the importance of his Young People’s Concerts cannot be overstated. A part of the longest-running series of family concerts of classical music in the world, Leonard Bernstein’s televised concerts with the New York Philharmonic placed him in the living rooms of families across the country for over a decade.

Through his trademark “Bernstein Method,” he was able to introduce and break down complex, abstract concepts into analogies and metaphors digestible by the American youth. The objective of the concert would be stated in the form of a question and answered in stages throughout. He was able to engage the audience through questions, call and response, and by seamlessly transitioning to the piano to illuminate his arguments. Determined to keep the focus on the music, Bernstein gave classical music great exposure by both beginning and ending with a performance.

This format introduced the American youth to the music of greats like Shostakovich, Hindesmith, Holst, and Ives; featuring guests like Aaron Copland; and introducing the world to talented Young Performers like André Watts and Jung Ja Kim. Of all his numerous accomplishments, Bernstein called the Young People’s Concerts one of “the most highly prized activities of his life.” Carrying over from his piano teaching days, his passion for education beamed through the television screen. He wrote every word of every concert, often meticulously making changes up until the live performance in order to find the most fitting metaphor or illuminating phrase.

Starting with his first performance on January 18th, 1958, Bernstein led 53 Young People’s Concerts over 14 years. These concerts were all telecast on CBS and syndicated in over 40 countries, dubbed in 12 different languages. Two books of scripts were also published. Eventually shown during primetime, his programs became as popular as “The Flintstones” and were referenced in popular culture such as the cartoon strip Peanuts.

Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts solidified his role as classical music ambassador for the American youth by using his charisma, insight, and didactic methods to inspire a generation of young musicians, composers, and conductors, and help create a shared American musical identity.

Isaac Mervis is a senior music and education double major at Davidson College from Indianapolis, IN.

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.

West Side Story: Musical & Lyrical Collaborations with Sondheim

By Matt Begley

The idea for West Side Story originated as a collaboration between Jerome Robbins (choreographer), Arthur Laurents (writer), and Leonard Bernstein (composer) as a revival of the story of Romeo and Juliet in a modern New York setting.

The concept really picked up steam in 1955 as gang violence in Los Angeles inspired the idea of using Puerto Rican and Polish populations in New York.

In late September, Laurents and Bernstein met with Comden and Green (who had already collaborated with Bernstein on productions like Fancy Free, On the Town, and Wonderful Town) with the goal of hiring the two on as lyricists for the musical.

Comden and Green declined, but later in October, Stephen Sondheim, a 25-year-old mentee of Oscar Hammerstein II, was selected to be the lyricist, and “to bring the language [of Bernstein’s drafts] down to the level of real simplicity.” Throughout the winter of 1955 & 1956 Sondheim and Bernstein worked on the music.

Sondheim shows both his youth and inexperience in the business as well as the degree to which Lenny trusted Sondheim’s judgement in this interview.

During this time, Bernstein was also working a large amount on Candide and a significant amount of music was swapped between the two pieces. For example, the music for two love duets was exchanged between West Side Story and Candide, with the music for “One Hand, One Heart” going to West Side Story and the music for “O Happy We” (a song in a scrapped tea shop scene between Tony and Maria) going to Candide.

Bernstein and Sondheim complemented each other well, being almost exact opposite personalities, with Sondheim being introverted and reserved and Bernstein being outgoing and extroverted. Sondheim’s music experience also added to Bernstein’s comfort in working with him. Sondheim’s “less is more” approach countered Bernstein’s “more is better” approach and caused many of Bernstein’s excessively corny lines to be edited out, like the lyric for “Somewhere” that reads “Someday we’ll have a city / Truer than dreams.”

Sondheim said of Bernstein’s lyrics “The music is so rich that if the lyrics are too ripe you have overdone it.” Much of the music for the show was altered last minute, with Bernstein and Sondheim even writing and adding “Something’s Coming” to the show only three days before its first performance for an audience of Broadway performers.

Sondheim demonstrates in this interview, his tendency toward less over-the-top lyrics, unlike Hammerstein and especially Lenny, whose tendency was to make everything melodramatic.h

Sondheim wrote to Lenny the night of the Broadway premier that “West Side Story means much more to me than a first show, more even than the privilege of collaborating with you and Arthur [Laurents] and Jerry [Robbins]. It marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long and enduring friendship. Friendship is a thing I give or receive rarely, but for what it’s worth, I want you to know you have it from me always.”

Matthew Begley is a senior music and biology major at Davidson College from Black Mountain, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Davidson College Chorale.

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.

Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins Collaboration on West Side Story

By Amelia Willingham

The idea for West Side Story came to Jerome Robbins seven years before he brought the idea to Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents. Working at the Actors Studio in 1947, Robbins had attempted to help Monty Clift settle into his role as Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by suggesting he imagine that the story took place “among the gangs of New York.” Bernstein and Laurents reached out to Robbins in 1955 with an idea for a new musical, but Robbins ended up trashing it. Instead, Robbins proposed the idea of a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and West Side Story was born.

Jerome Robbins West Side Story

Jerome Robbins filled the role of choreographer, director, and “show doctor,” seizing control over the entire project. At the onset of production, he requested eight weeks of rehearsal, as opposed to the Broadway standard of four. He made changes to Bernstein and Sondheim’s music, even up until the show’s opening night at the DC National Theatre. His taxing methods accompanied intense choreography, but the product proved worth it; the physically demanding dances express musical themes, capture every nuance of the score, and narrate the story through movement. Robbins’ storytelling style is especially evident in his choreography for “Cool,” shown below:

Working with Robbins proved a challenge for Bernstein, who had to leave his ego at the door in silently accepting critique and criticism from Robbins. Robbins reflected on the dynamic between them as being a “continual flow,” but Bernstein looked back on it as “composing with [Robbins’] hands on [his] shoulders.” He even lamented to his wife, Felicia, “all the things I love most in it are being dropped.” However, Robbins found a way to express visually what Bernstein initiated musically, and to brilliant effect.

Amelia Willingham is a Senior Music Major and Hispanic Studies Minor at Davidson College from Charlotte, NC. She works for Davidson Technical Services and spends much of her time arranging music for and singing with her a cappella group, The Nuances.

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.

Bernstein’s NY Phil Career

By Dylan Hyman

Leonard Bernstein began his official New York Philharmonic career on January 2, 1958, but his ties to the organization go back to his famous conductorial debut in 1943, subbing in for then conductor Bruno Walter. Bernstein was to slowly take over Dimitri Mitropoulos over the 1958 – 1959 season. During his time at the New York Phil, Bernstein implemented new programs and ideology’s and was seen as the youthful revitalization the organization was in dire need of. Some of Bernstein’s new policies and programs included:

Preview concerts on Thursday nights

These were informal “dress rehearsals” that were in conjunction with the main weekend concerts. Bernstein would often talk through the program, explaining each piece in much greater detail than normal. No press was allowed on these nights to encourage pure enjoyment of the music itself. Bernstein and his orchestra also began to dress in nehru jackets instead the usual suit or tuxedo.

Spotlight concerts on Sundays

These concerts were opportunities for younger conductors and musicians to showcase their talent to a larger than average audience. This allowed young musicians to mature and grow and make their place in the competitive industry. As Americans would listen to their radio’s on Sunday afternoons, they would listen to up and coming musicians delight them with wonderful programs selected by Bernstein.

Thematic programming

Bernstein would dedicate an entire season to a specific topic and then program pieces around that topic. He is seen as one of the innovators of thematic programming. His first season was dedicated to American music, fitting for the first popular American conductor.

Increased frequency of concerts

Bernstein introduced a freshness to the orchestra. He was much more physically able than Mitropoulos and was able to perform more nights in a row. This increased frequency resulted in the orchestra becoming more accessible to the public; there were more opportunities for the public to see the orchestra.

International efforts

Bernstein made it a point to take this orchestra around the world more than ever before. The most famous international tour was to Soviet Russia in 1959. This was at a time of tense relations between capitalist America and communist Russia; the space race had recently begun and the nuclear threat was always imminent. Bernstein programmed pieces that the USSR did not allow (because of their western influence), pieces by Ives, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Though these pieces were older, they were brand new for Soviet Russia.

One piece, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, was performed in front of the composer. Bernstein invited the composer up to acknowledge him for his outstanding work that the Soviet nation deemed “too western.”

Bernstein also recognized Boris Pasternak, an author that was unable to receive his own Nobel Peace Prize because the Soviet Union forbid him to do so. Small acts like these helped break down the “iron curtain” of communism and spread the idea of American freedom. Bernstein, in an effort to educate the Russian people, spoke in Russian and talked about each piece in length before performing said piece. Though critics saw this as disrespectful, I believe it showed a virtue in Bernstien that continued with him in his other ventures.

Young People’s Concerts

Bernstein was an educator at heart and he sought to teach the American people more about the music they were listening to. This series of concerts/television programs were aimed mainly at kids, but were enjoyed by everybody. Fittingly, Bernstein’s first broadcast was titled “What Does Music Mean?” He discussed how we interpret music and what makes music so forceful as a sonic medium. Bernstein used these programs to not only connect with the youth of America, but with his own children. It is important to note that these programs eventually were syndicated across the world and had a huge influence on many young musicians.

Bernstein’s Sabbatical Conclusion

In 1962, Bernstein premiered his orchestra at the newly built Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. The debut was plagued with acoustical problems, which foreshadowed the next few years before his eventual sabbatical. Bernstein had two notable “flops” during his 1962 – 1964 stretch of time at the New York Phil: his concert with John Cage and his concert with Glenn Gould.

John Cage’s avant garde approach to music, improvisational orchestral pieces in this case, did not bode well with the audience; many of them getting up and leaving during the show. His concert with Glenn Gould sparked controversy as he jokingly asked the question “Who is the leader, the soloist or the conductor?”

Many saw this as Bernstein disrespecting Gould’s talent, but in fact, this was just playful humor between the two. In order to take a year off and focus on composing, Bernstein decided that from 1964 to 1965, he would take a sabbatical year. This sabbatical year saw Bernstein writing two pieces, Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms. He also took this time to begin building a relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic (which he later decided to conduct after the New York Phil).

Upon returning to his orchestra in 1966, Bernstein announced that 1969 would be his last year at the New York Phil. His conclusion after the sabbatical resulted in bernstein questioning symphonic form and the purpose of the orchestra itself.

His final years as director were critically praised but, it should also be noted that Bernstein experienced increased bouts of depression and emotional turmoil during these final years at the New York Phil. Kennedy’s assassination and his father’s death weighed on him but it was his lack of composing that I believe really got to him. Bernstein dropped composing because of a desire to simplify, but I believe this lead to more trouble in the end. Amicably leaving the New York Phil., Bernstein was eager to continue his musical career elsewhere, namely Vienna.

Dylan Hyman is a senior music major at Davidson College. He is a composer and producer specializing in electronic noise.

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.

Tom Cothran, Bernstein’s Sexual Orientation, and 1970s American Culture

By Matt Begley

Leonard Bernstein’s personal life during the 1970s can be thought of in terms of a midlife crisis.

Lenny prefaced one of his concerts in 1976 saying “I came to realize that as death approaches [he was fifty-eight] an artist must cast off everything that may be restraining him and create in complete freedom. I decided that I had to do this for myself, to live the rest of my life as I want.”

The way in which Lenny did this was volatile, in a time when the nation as a whole was shifting back toward conservatism after the 1960s.

Lenny and Felicia were both politically active, from opposing the Vietnam war to hosting a meeting to raise bail money for members of the Black Panther Party.

Jennie Tourel said that Bernstein was “deeply troubled about Vietnam, angry and frustrated. He comes into my apartment with this enormous leonine head, in command of the world, and after a few moments he is in tears, about the war, the stupid government and his powerlessness.”

Around this time, Felicia also hosted a meeting to raise bail money for members of the Black Panther Party, where Lenny made some very controversial and easily misconstrued statements.

Tom Wolfe, a well-known journalist at the time, wrote a 24 page article on the meeting, and it developed into a full-blown scandal. Bernstein claimed that he did not support the Black Panthers, only their civil liberties that were compromised by an outrageously high bail.

In 1971, Leonard met Tom Cothran, a young music director at a San Francisco radio station. The two hit it off instantly, with Cothran being a young, expressive person who appealed to, and respected, Lenny’s academic side, while also displaying musical talent himself.

He quickly became part of Lenny’s inner circle, and the family accepted him as Lenny’s friend and associate. Lenny’s relationship with Cothran became his first loving relationship with a man.

Lenny took Cothran on many trips, including one to assist him in writing the Norton Lectures at Harvard and a trip to Washington D.C. to work on a musical titled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lenny had two other affairs in the early 1970s with Justus Frantz, a pianist who later became romantically involved with Lenny’s daughter Jamie, and Chris Barnes, an African American airline steward. The relationship with Chris Barnes would have been especially controversial due to the compounding effects of the backlash against the civil rights movement and the homosexual nature of the relationship.

Felicia began to openly resent Cothran in the Spring of 1976. Lenny and Felicia decided to separate after some conflict at Alexander’s 21st birthday party in July.

From there, Lenny traveled with Cothran to California, then back to New York, then to Europe, then back to New York, never seeming to stay settled. He spent the holidays with Cothran that winter in Barbados. He resolved to live with Cothran in Palm Springs afterward. Although the two had strong feelings for each other their lifestyles did not match at all, and the relationship ended in February of 1977.

A letter Felicia wrote to Lenny, most likely in early 1977, about the prospect of reconciliation between the two of them can be read here.

Shortly afterward Lenny and Felicia reconciled only to find out that Felicia had late stage lung cancer. Felicia’s died in 1978. Leonard resumed his correspondence with Tom Cothran in 1980, as a close friend looking for comfort in his grieving, only for him to be diagnosed with AIDS later the same year.

Burton describes that through the 1980s “He [Leonard] was especially vulnerable to the charms and musical talents of the young male conductors with whom he worked each year. No doubt he wanted to seduce and possess them, but he loved teaching them even more.”

Matthew Begley is a senior music and biology major at Davidson College from Black Mountain, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Davidson College Chorale.

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.

The Israel Philharmonic in 1948

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.