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Daughter of Leonard Bernstein shares memories of his music, humanitarian work

In ASU talk, Jamie Bernstein tells students to take their music out into the world


Woman on a stage speaking into a microphone in front of a screen showing a photo of Leonard Bernstein.
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December 01, 2023

The composer Leonard Bernstein was a virtuoso who spent his entire career using music as a way to bring humanity together.

Bernstein, who died in 1990, was a composer, conductor, educator and humanitarian, according to Jamie Bernstein, his daughter. She gave a talk titled “Leonard Bernstein: Citizen Artist” sponsored by the School of Music, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University on Thursday.

“The last category was the underpinning for everything else Leonard Bernstein did as a musician,” she said of his humanitarian work.

He used his platform to work for civil rights, fight discrimination, protest the Vietnam War and advocate for peace.

Mostly, he exuded love for everyone.

“If he could have hugged every person in the world, he would have,” she said. “Writing music was his hug.”

Bernstein is the subject of the recently released movie “Maestro.” Bradley Cooper directed, co-wrote and stars in the movie, which looks at the life of Bernstein and his wife, pianist and actress Felicia Montealegre.

Jamie Bernstein said her father, born of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, was classically trained but was influenced by pop music and jazz on the radio and by the liturgical music he heard at the synagogue. Later he discovered blues, Caribbean music and Broadway musicals.

“He retained every kind of music he heard, and they all wove together to create a unique compositional fabric,” she said.

Throughout her talk, she played video clips and a scene from her father’s 1944 Broadway show “On the Town,” showing how he incorporated big band jazz influences. Overall, Leonard Bernstein wrote six Broadway musicals, three ballets, three symphonies, two movie scores and many other works. He won seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, 16 Grammy Awards and an Academy Award nomination.

In 1957, he wrote the blockbuster Broadway show “West Side Story” and also became music director for the New York Philharmonic, she said.

“He was a score-reading prodigy,” Jamie Bernstein said. “He had an uncanny ability to intuit what a composer intended.”

He particularly connected with the music of Gustav Mahler. He conducted Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," in a televised tribute to President John F. Kennedy two days after the assassination in November 1963.

At the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein initiated blind auditions in a bid to diversify the orchestra members. He hired the orchestra’s first Black violist, Sanford Allen, in 1962.

Jamie Bernstein said her father was a lifelong learner and teacher, always absorbing new ideas and communicating with his audience.

One of his biggest legacies is the Young People’s Concerts, the weekly Saturday afternoon performances in Lincoln Center that were televised on CBS from 1958 until the 1970s.

“Leonard Bernstein singlehandedly introduced more human beings to the joy of symphonic music than probably anyone else in history," she said.

The program was wildly popular because he wasn’t stuffy.

“He made it fun. He didn’t talk down to listeners, and his joy was palpable,” she said.

He particularly loved listening to pop music in the car with his kids and would sometimes incorporate those songs into his Young People’s Concerts. She showed a hilarious clip in which Bernstein uses the song “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks to demonstrate the mixolydian scale.

“Who can resist that?” she said. “Leonard Bernstein was the opposite of a snob.”

His entire life, Bernstein used music to fight oppression and advance progressive causes. His efforts caught the attention of the FBI, which amassed an 800-page dossier on him over many years. She related one horrifying incident from 1970, when her mother hosted a fundraiser for some members of the Black Panthers who had been unjustly jailed. It was a private event, with no press invited. But the journalist Tom Wolfe snuck into the party.

“Tom Wolfe observed every detail and cast it all in a mean-spirited, satirical light,” she said. His scathing magazine article later became the book “Radical Chic.”

“It’s hard to convey how much damage this snarky little piece of writing generated for our family,” she said. The Bernsteins lost friends, were shunned by family members and received piles of hate mail. Members of the Jewish Defense League picketed outside their apartment building.

Years later, upon reviewing his FBI dossier, Bernstein discovered that it was the FBI who wrote the hate mail and planted the picketers to sow discord between Black and Jewish people.

Bernstein was devoted to anti-war causes. He wrote a song called “So Pretty,” which was sung by Barbra Streisand at a protest against the Vietnam War. Less than a year before he died, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on Christmas Day 1989 in a newly unified Berlin, weeks after the Berlin Wall fell.

One of Bernstein’s greatest compositions is “Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers,” which he wrote for the inauguration of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. The work, performed in 2018 at ASUThe production, performed in honor of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth, included the ASU Symphony Orchestra and Choirs, ASU Music Theatre and Opera, and dancers and designers from the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, as well as the Phoenix Boys Choir., combines orchestra, chorus, Broadway singers, a rock band, a blues band, a marching band, dancers and kazoos.

“This piece explores the collective crisis of faith — above all, the crisis of faith in ourselves as a community. If anything, that crisis has grown in our new century,” she said.

Another signature work that endures is the song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.”

“‘Somewhere’ is a global anthem for peace and understanding,” she said, noting that it was sung by Diana Ross on the “Ed Sullivan Show” after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Jamie Bernstein, author of the 2019 memoir “Famous Father Girl,” is pleased that her father’s work and music will be appreciated by a wider audience through the movie “Maestro.”

“It’s got tons of Bernstein music in the score, and that alone is so thrilling for my brother and my sister and me, to hear our dad’s music going out in the world in this giant, fun new way,” she said.

She urged the music students in the audience to take their music with them out into the world, like her father did.

“I’m sure you all have this experience — not just in concert halls, but in schools, hospitals, veterans’ centers, senior centers, prisons, protest marches — anywhere that music can do its magic of connecting, comforting, delighting and healing.

“This was exactly how Leonard Bernstein understood music, and his lifelong service through music offers an ideal model for today’s young musicians.”

Top photo: Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard Bernstein, gave a talk about her father's life at Katzin Concert Hall on the ASU Tempe campus Thursday, Nov. 30. Photo by Abigail Wilt/The School of Music, Dance and Theatre

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