April 14, 2024
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The Maestro, Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was many things. A musical genius who gave the world popular memorable melodies. An intellectual eager to share his knowledge; his televised Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic offered children (and adults) an education and appreciation of classical music. A mentor to many younger musicians, including Seiji Ozawa and Yo Yo Ma, and many of the promising students at the famed Tanglewood Institute, whose annual concerts were among the summer season’s top offerings. A proud Jew; he refused to convert for the sake of his career as his own mentor, Serge Koussevitsky, the Russian Jewish scion of the famed cantorial family, had and later urged him to do.

Neither his ego nor the need to insure financial solvency at a time when antisemitism in America (and the world) was still rife and extremely dangerous could persuade him to abandon Judaism. In fact, he would become an advocate for Jews and his faith.

Bernstein insisted that Felicia Cohn Monteleaegure, a musician and actress, convert before they married. The native Costa Rican with Jewish roots (on her father’s side) was raised in Chile as a Catholic. She and Bernstein had three children, who were raised as Jews. (Jamie, their eldest daughter is a Harvard graduate—her father’s alma mater—and as a musician and educator incorporates lots of Yiddish expressions in her talks.) Bernstein was an adoring husband and father.

His father, Samuel Joseph, a successful businessman who had immigrated from Russia, was a major supporter of Chabad and discouraged his eldest son from becoming a musician. Both he and his wife, Jennie, were born in Rivne, now Ukraine. Leonard was an American intellectual, humanitarian and activist who lived Hillel’s tripartite dictum, giving generously of his talents and his wealth. No doubt, he would now be supporting both Ukraine and Israel and speaking out against antisemitism, including that of the now ex-president of Harvard. Beginning in the 1940s the FBI kept a file on him.

After WWII, Lenny, as he was affectionately called, toured the displaced persons camps to perform for Holocaust survivors, and later supported the Israel Philharmonic. Bernstein toured the military camps during Israel’s wars to entertain the troops and boost morale. As the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he hired Oscar Ravina, a prodigious child violinist who survived the Holocaust, saving his younger sister Rivke’s life and later supporting his parents and his own family who lived in Montclair, New Jersey. Judaism was important to Bernstein. After all, he was the first American-born conductor, a Jewish one at that, to gain international fame.

Bernstein was instrumental in popularizing another tortured Jewish conductor, Gustav Mahler(1860-1911), who composed 10 symphonies and other songs. Although Mahler was compelled, as many in his generation were, to convert to Christianity, Bernstein forced the Vienna Philharmonic, still populated by former Nazis, to include the Viennese composer in its repertoire. It’s quite possible that Mahler would have been lost to musical memory had Bernstein not made such heroic efforts to revive him.

Unfortunately, Bernstein, himself is given short shrift as a master of melodies. His “West Side Story” (words by Stephen Sondheim) soon became a classic musical with a message, one that spoke out against prejudice and baseless hatred. Originally conceived as “East Side Story,” about Jews and Gentiles, it was recast as two ethnically different Christian groups. It includes the plaintive “Somewhere,” a song that sums up the Diaspora experience.

Bernstein accomplished far more than most others of his ilk. Has any other composer bridged the gap between popular and classical music as well as Judaism and Christianity? Has any celebrated musician written and delivered a series of six Norton lectures at Harvard University on music and linguistics, “The Unanswered Question”? His “Symphony No.1: Jeremiah” was much influenced by the prayers and blessings he was raised on, and uses Hebrew cantillations. First performed in 1943 by the New York Philharmonic, it brought about a reconciliation between the observant father, Samuel Bernstein and his liberal son, Lenny. Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” is sung in the original Hebrew.

In response to JFK’s assassination, Bernstein wrote a musical Kaddish for the first Catholic to be elected president, at a time when many Americans were anti-Catholic. When Jackie Kennedy Onassis asked him to write a work for the inauguration
of the Kennedy Center, he created “Mass,” a theatrical piece that encapsulates elements of the traditional Catholic Mass (founded on the Jewish blessings over wine and bread), but which also incorporates singing, acting and dance. It initially received mixed reviews (particularly by conservative Catholics), but has since been performed more than 100 times all over the world.

More information about Bernstein is available on the internet, including YouTubes of the Norton Lectures; his Young People’s Concert series; his musical compositions, reviews of his biographies, and a talk by his daughter Jamie, based on her book about growing up in the remarkable Bernstein family.

Look for the film “Maestro,” about Bernstein’s life, in theaters and on Netflix.

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