THE LEGACY OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN
Interview with Jamie Bernstein
Joan Baum: Of all the interviews you’ve already given about your father, including those that have run on PBS recently, is there something that has still not been asked or not explored as fully as you would wish regarding your father’s place in the classical music pantheon?
Jamie Bernstein: Nope!!
Baum: Your uncle Burton Bernstein, your father’s younger brother, has just come out with Leonard Bernstein: An American Original (written with Barbara Haws). Which word, “American” or “Original” do you think best defines Leonard Bernstein, mindful of the fact that both words, of course, go together?
Bernstein: I guess if you think about the term “American Original” too carefully, it starts to lose meaning. But really, the whole idea of being American is that you’re an original. You’re not a European, or an African, or a Latin American; you’re starting over, reinventing yourself. As a musician, Leonard Bernstein was a total original. Until he came along, there was no such thing as an American-born big-time conductor (Let alone a Jewish one). Until LB came along, there was no such thing as a symphonic conductor who also wrote Broadway shows. (Not to mention symphonies and movie scores!) Until LB came along, there was no such thing as a conductor who went on television and explained classical music in a way that entire families could understand and enjoy. On CBS primetime television, yet! Leonard Bernstein didn’t just break molds; he forged a brand new one. And then nobody else could fill it.
Baum: Arguably no other composer, conductor, pianist—American or European—so changed music education as Leonard Bernstein. What prompted him to take on this fabulous enterprise, creating and sustaining a series, The Young People’s Concerts, that has become legendary not only in the history of music but in education? What qualities would you single out in LB that made him such a wonderful teacher, and how would you go about trying to convince musicians today to consider teaching a career?
Bernstein: My father and his siblings used to make affectionate jokes about their father, Sam Bernstein, who was a passionate Talmudic scholar. They said that if you were at the dinner table and you asked Sam to please pass the salt, he would reply, “Funny thing about salt. You know, Lot’s wife...”—and he would be off explaining. He was a compulsive rabbi—even if he did run a hair and beauty supply business in Boston. But the truth is my father was a compulsive rabbi too! He just couldn’t help explaining things. He wasn’t so much a teacher as he was a student who just couldn’t wait to share what he’d learned—because he was so excited about it. Every good teacher is a perennial student—and it’s this lifelong love of learning that my father wished to communicate above all else.
Baum: Leonard Bernstein was a great champion of contemporary American music, still an uphill battle for many audiences. As a narrator, broadcaster, writer and producer of Bernstein concerts, mainly on the Broadway beat, what would you suggest might be done to encourage the general public, young and older, to appreciate contemporary classical music? Your father’s Mass, for example, or The Chichester Psalms?
Bernstein: We tend to forget nowadays what an urgent crisis composers faced in the mid-20th Century. Back then, a composer who wished to be taken seriously by the academic musical community absolutely positively had to forfeit tonality in favor of so-called 12-tone music; simply put, they had to compose music with no key and no melody. There was no middle ground; either you wrote 12-tone music or you weren’t serious. This was a terrible dilemma for my father, who could not bring himself to stop writing a TUNE. By defaulting to tonality in his symphonic works, he automatically excluded himself from the pantheon of composers deemed “important” in the halls of academe. Although he sacrificed the legitimacy he longed for at the time, I suspect he got the last laugh; general audiences are more likely to respond to “Chichester Psalms” than to a thorny work by Elliott Carter.
Nevertheless, as a conductor, my father was committed to the promotion of contemporary composers and their music—and if they were all writing 12-tone music, so be it. In his attempts to make this difficult music more user-friendly, he would sometimes talk to the audience about a piece he was about to conduct for longer than it took to play it!
As much as I love Mass and Chich and all my father’s other works, I’m not sure that they represent an entire generation of music. They’re just LB music. But because his music is particularly tuneful, lively and rhythmically inventive, it makes an excellent case for the possibility of having fun in a concert hall!
Baum: Given the horrendous cutbacks in funding for arts in the public schools—not likely to be turned around in the near future—what would YOU do to ensure that youngsters, especially those in inner cities, those new to our shores, those who probably know nothing about LB, can be given the opportunity to be exposed to him, his heritage and American classical music?
Bernstein: This is such a tough question! All I can tell you is what I do: when it comes to introducing my dad’s music to new audiences, I depend upon the ability of an orchestra to bring me in. If they lose the ability to afford to do that, I don’t know what I’d do next. So I cross my fingers that orchestras will continue to find it in their budgets to invite me to present concerts to their young audiences. One of my lucky breaks in life was to have grown up bilingual in English and Spanish, so I often present “The Bernstein Beat,” my concert about my dad’s music, en español. That version of the concert brought in a whole new audience in Miami, for example.
Baum: On a personal note—any particular anecdotes you recall about your father and your siblings regarding his teaching? Did he try to teach any of you music? Was his own father, Samuel, around to introduce The Talmud? Etc.
Bernstein: As I explained, my father basically couldn’t help but be teaching, pretty much all the time. Here’s an example that was particularly fun. When we drove back and forth between New York City and our country place in Connecticut, we always listened to the pop music station on the car radio. My dad loved the Beatles, the Stones, the Supremes; he was so open to all the music around him. One day we were listening to “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks, and our dad suddenly said, “Hey! This song is in the Mixolydian mode! You know what a mode is?” No, we didn’t. So he proceeded to explain to us about modes, and what do you know: a few weeks later, the topic of his next televised Young People’s Concert was—modes! In this fun, informal way, our dad often made us the unsuspecting guinea pigs for his children’s concerts.#