'Leonard Bernstein was a thinker, teacher, author, television star, provocateur, humanitarian and he was my hero.'
by Marin Alsop
As with all true mentors, Bernstein taught me much more than a craft. He showed me – and the world – the enormous power of music and how important it is to share it with as much of humanity as is possible. He showed us that classical music is a powerful force that can transform lives as well as inspire and move people and he lived by those principles.
Leonard Bernstein, for me, was the greatest risk-taker in 20-century classical music. Seeing him conduct when I was only nine years old at a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert convinced me that conducting was the only thing in the world that I wanted to do. That alone would have been enough of a gift; but then at the age of 31, he took me under his wing and imparted to me the heart and soul of the craft. Bernstein always told me that a composer spends his entire life writing the same piece, trying to answer the same unanswerable questions.
Bernstein's total engagement with the music, the orchestra and with us, the audience, was beyond thrilling. I fell in love with him on the spot and adored his rebellious embracing of every genre of music.
I will never forget going to a New York Philharmonic rehearsal when Leonard Bernstein was conducting Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. I was imagining how many hundreds of times he must have conducted that symphony and wondering what kind of approach he would take. The two hours that followed were an absolute revelation and offered me insight into and understanding of who Leonard Bernstein, the conductor, really was.
This was a man whose primary and all-consuming commitment was to the creator, the composer. He was unrelenting in his dedication and doggedly devoted to uncovering the composer's true intent. Imagine my surprise when he walked out onto the podium and announced to the New York Philharmonic that he'd been "wrong" about Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony all these years!
This willingness and desire to re-examine every piece of music, to bring a fresh approach and new insights to every performance of a work, set Bernstein apart from everyone else.
One of the greatest gifts Bernstein shared with me was the significance of story; that every piece has an inherent story and that every composer spends his life trying to articulate his own personal story and answer those existential questions that are so consuming for him. I was always delighted when he would stop a rehearsal and say 'must I tell you the story of this Haydn Symphony?', only to have 70 musicians magically turn into 4-year-olds with that sparkle of anticipation in their eyes that says 'yes, please tell us that story!'. For me the thing that set LB apart was not only his embracing of the story, but his profound understanding that every story has a moral that connects all of us on the most basic human level.
Bernstein, the conductor, was the ultimate champion of the composer, committed to conveying every dimension of that composer, and I frequently had the sense that he was that composer for those moments, his association so strong that it blurred the line between conductor and creator.
Bernstein had many significant and wondrous relationships with orchestras; his relationship with the LSO was deep and enduring. Focused often on his intense connection to the music of Gustav Mahler, together they performed and recorded live many of the Mahler Symphonies. His debut with the LSO took place in 1966 with Mahler’s 7th Symphony.
In 1986 the LSO presented a festival honouring Bernstein which included works by others whom Bernstein admired, championed or was influenced by – Mahler, Stravinsky, Ives, Britten, Blitzstein, Shostakovich – and all except Mahler 1 written after 1900. There were screenings of On the Waterfront and West Side Story; an exhibition of photos and memorabilia; and a performance of Mass by students at the Guildhall School. The festival included a Royal Gala Performance (6 May 1986) in the presence of HM The Queen, conducted by LB, featuring Gidon Kremer, Krystian Zimerman and the teenage Aled Jones as the treble soloist in Chichester Psalms.
As a result of the Bernstein Festival, the LSO and Bernstein became much closer, resulting in the offer and his acceptance of the role of President of the LSO in 1987, a role he held until his death in 1990. There had previously been only four Presidents: Lord Howard de Walden, William Walton, Arthur Bliss and Karl Bohm; and there has been only one since: Sir Colin Davis.
It was through Bernstein, during that period, that I first met the LSO.
In 1990, the LSO, Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas, founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. I had been awarded the Bernstein Fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1988 and 1989, where I worked intensively with Bernstein. Following those two summers at Tanglewood, Bernstein invited me to join him in Japan for this exciting new festival launch. Along with Leif Bjaland, I conducted the PMF Orchestra, often splitting programs with my hero and mentor, Leonard Bernstein. What an amazing journey, on every level.
Serendipitously, on that trip I got to know the incredible musicians of the LSO and fell in love with the orchestra for the first time. When I conducted the orchestra at the Barbican later in the 90s, I felt so happy to reconnect and my first impression of an exceptional orchestra comprised of exceptional musicians and human beings, was confirmed.
I travelled with Bernstein as he conducted 15 concerts across Japan. He was already suffering from the lung disease that would lead to his death three months later. In his opening remarks at PMF, Bernstein said that he had decided to devote what time he had left to education and young people because mentoring young people was the most rewarding way to spend his remaining time.
Those of us there on that day understood the profound gift Bernstein was giving to each of us. But my gift from Bernstein started that day so long ago, when I was just nine years old, and first dreamed of becoming a conductor.
Marin Alsop, Conductor