“You have to have knowledge, you have to have taste … but above all that, the main thing that counts is the natural instinct that comes from the spirit.”
Leonard Bernstein describes the magic of being a conductor.
There are these ecstatic poses in hundreds of photographs, inspired music making on dozens of recordings—but Leonard Bernstein didn’t initially aspire to be a conductor. He began as a pianist and a composer at Harvard, and then met conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. “Mitropoulos had put the idea in my head that I must be a conductor,” Bernstein later recalled. “I never had this ambition or vision of myself—it seemed far too remote and glamorous a thing.”
He saw just how glamorous conducting could be one day in 1943, when the sudden illness of conductor Bruno Walter forced the 25-year-old Bernstein to lead the New York Philharmonic on a moment’s notice. The concert, which included challenging works by Schumann and Wagner, was …
”It’s an education to read reviews of Bernstein’s concerts over the years. Critics couldn’t ignore his tremendous talent and vitality, but the energy and sheer personal power he exuded seemed to have overwhelmed them. Commonly, one reads about his over-conducting; histrionic is a word that shows up with some frequency. Self-indulgence is noted, his taste is questioned, it’s alleged that Bernstein’s work has a single subject—himself. I think those boys and girls writing the reviews were looking at Leonard Bernstein from the wrong vantage point: he wasn’t conducting the audience; he was conducting the musicians on the stage. Two-thirds of what a conductor does is completely out of the view of the audience. To bolster my audacious notion that it’s very difficult to judge a conductor from the audience, let me call upon a witness. Orin O’Brien, a bassist who joined the New York Philharmonic in 1966, once told the radio host Robert Sherman that she worked as an usher at Carnegie Hall while she was studying at Juilliard, and “hardly ever missed a Philharmonic concert. From the audience I found it difficult to take some of Bernstein’s gyrations and dancing around the podium,” she recalled. But once she joined the Orchestra, “I thought, ‘Gee whiz, I don’t find him difficult to follow at all, he’s extremely clear.’ He had an unbelievable rhythm in his body language. Whenever you had an after-beat or something else that was tricky, he would give you the rhythm with the flick of an eyebrow, or a smile, or just a look. …We knew then that his movements weren’t put on for the audience’s benefit, but that he was simply living music that he believed in so deeply.”
Excerpted from Leonard Bernstein: American Original, by Burton Bernstein and Barbara B. Haws (HarperCollins, August 2008).
Excerpt from Mahler’s Symphony No.1 , “Titan” (II. Kräftig Bewegt)
New York Philharmonic / Leonard Bernstein, Conductor. Sony Classical SK 60732.
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By Burton Bernstein— former New Yorker writer and Leonard’s brother—and the New York Philharmonic’s historian, Barbara Haws.