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From the Archive: New York Philharmonic with Jamie Bernstein

Nothing Concrete text
26 Aug 2020

This week's podcast explores the legacy of Leonard Bernstein, one of the most important conductors from 1958-1969, bringing the orchestra to the television screens of America and beyond.



In this week’s edition we return to the Classical Music season of 2011 when International Associate Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, travelled across the ocean to perform at the Barbican. This podcast also includes an exploration of the legacy of Leonard Bernstein, who was one of its most important conductors from 1958–1969, bring the orchestra to the television screens of America and beyond.

Well in our house it was like water to a fish, the ground of being was the music that was around us all the time

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, iTunes or wherever you find your podcast


Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. On this week’s edition we return to the Classical Music season of 2011 when International Associate Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, travelled across the ocean to perform at the Barbican. Jamie Bernstein: It is true that New York City was the perfect home for my Father because it’s probably the only entity on the planet that could keep up with him. It never goes to sleeps, it just goes around the clock just like my Father used to.


BE: This edition not only focuses on this series but also includes an exploration of the legacy of Leonard Bernstein who was one of its most important conductors from 1958–1969, bring the orchestra to the television screens of America and beyond.


In 2011 under music director Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic presented four stunning concerts, each featuring music with a special connection to New York city.  Highlights include Mahler's Ninth Symphony, concerts with Lang Lang and Joyce DiDonato and a Young People's Concert. Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson caught up with Jamie Bernstein in the Bernstein family home in New York. Edward Seckerson: So here I am with Jamie Bernstein, in the Bernstein family apartment, with lots of wonderful photographs and bits of memorabilia. I’ve just seen a photograph of you, Jamie, aged 10, crouched on a little box beneath your father’s podium when he was preparing one of the Young People’s concerts and I’m thinking to myself now how early a) did you understand what he did and b) how soon were you exposed first hand to his conducting? JB: Well I guess I was exposed to what he was doing from birth but I didn’t really understand what was going on very well until, probably not until he started doing the Young People’s concerts on television, because they were in a sense, aimed directly at me. At the time I was five and I remember that first Young People’s concert – it was televised, and it was 1957 and I was very little and there I was in my party dress and my little black patent leather party shoes and I remember holding someone’s hands and someone saying to me ‘watch out for the cables’, because there were these gigantic black television cables snaking through Carnegie Hall. That’s actually all I remember about the first Young People’s concert. But I did eventually grasp that my father was on television and that was kind of a big deal. But then the moment when the penny really dropped was a few year’s later when The Flintstones were on television and on one episode Wilma and Betty were on their way to the ‘Hollyrock Bowl’ to hear Leonard Bernstone conduct and that’s when my brother and I realised our father had really hit the big time. ES: How conscious were you of music being part of the household? JB: Well in our house it was like water to a fish, the ground of being was the music that was around us all the time. Not just when my father was working but also when people came over my father would just naturally gravitate to the piano to play something that everybody was talking about, or I remember later on when we had a library, it had a harpsichord in it so inevitably, that was the cocktail hour before dinner when everybody was just sitting around and something might come up about a TV show jingle or an advertisement, my father would go to the harpsichord and play these silly little tunes on the harpsichord where they would sound ridiculous. So in that sense music was around us all the time. ES: But that was what was so wonderful about him, he took music from out of the air wherever it was and just enjoyed it, enjoyed the diversity of it. What was the music you were drawn to as a kid and as you were growing into a teenager? What rang your bell? JB: Well I was incredibly fortunate to be eleven years old when The Beatles hit the United States. I remember getting the next Beatles album and running home and barging into my father’s studio saying ‘look, look, it’s out’ and he’d say ‘let’s put it on right now’ and we’d put the album on and sit down together on the couch with the album cover and read the liner notes and follow along with the lyrics. He totally got it, about what excellent songwriters they were. > ES: And when did classical music sort of, or didn’t it, come into your life at that time? JB: Well it was always there and I never really thought about it. I was just, by osmosis, absorbing all this information about classical music just by attending my father’s Young People’s concerts. And because we talked about The Beatles and other pop music so much and listened to pop music on the radio all the time in the car, my father got in the habit of using pop music to illustrate the points he was talking about in his Young People’s concerts. He would go to the piano and sing ‘And I love her’ in his terrible gravelly voice, and so there was this very real sense of family life, and he was a great dad, he was very warm and affectionate and I think I still have bruises from his bear hugs. He really adored us, I don’t think I ever felt unwelcome in his presence, even when I would barge into his studio and interrupt his work, which I think we all did a lot. But there was this sense that we were always welcome. ES: Let’s talk a little about your dad and the New York Philharmonic for a moment. Because this was the musical family into which he grew as a musician and it made him an overnight star and it was his musical foundation for so many years. I always think of Mahler when I think of your father, particularly because my introduction to Mahler came at the time when he was really introducing it to the world through those first New York Philharmonic concerts and recordings. Were you conscious of this extraordinary between, I guess you’ve met many of the players over the years? JB: Yes. Really the New York Philharmonic was like part of my family. I really felt that they were, we were all, connected. Very essentially, in a way. My father had a paternal relationship with them, so in effect they were my siblings, weren’t they? And so I… You know, and we saw them all the time. Not just for the Young People’s concerts but when I got older and my siblings got older, we went along on the tours with my father and the Philharmonic when they went to Europe and Israel and Australia and Japan, there were all these amazing on the road adventures. So I have always felt very close to the New York Philharmonic. ES: I mentioned Mahler just now, your father was a composer/conductor, probably in that order because I know how precious his music was to him, composition was to him. He once said, and I’ll always remember this, he could always gauge how well a performance was going by the extent to which he felt he was composing the piece as he went along, whether it was Beethoven or Brahms or Mahler or whatever. Do you remember him talking about that? JB: Sure, well I mean he almost channelled Mahler. He did talk about approaching the studying of the orchestral scores as if he were the composer himself. He would try to put himself in the mind of the composer, to get a sense of why the composer wrote the music the way that he did and that this was his way of entering into the music. When it came to Mahler of course he had that extra relationship because there were so many parallels between Mahler’s life and my father’s, and also musical connections because I think that Mahler’s approach to composing was in many ways like my father’s, they both wore their hearts on their sleeves, they were very emotional, sometimes almost bombastic and very aware of the trouble and angst in the world and somehow expressing that through music. So I think his connection to Mahler could not have been more profound. ES: When he was composing, did he come and say, ‘listen to this, what do you think of this?’ – did he share with the family? JB: He did later on when I was a teenager, not so much when I was little. ES: No because your feedback wouldn’t have been as valuable then I guess. JB: Right. Also, because I think that when I was really little, he was still very much in the crisis of whether or not to write 12-tone music. Back then in the mid-20th Century you could not be taken seriously as a serious composer unless you wrote 12-tone music and my father really set great store in the holes of academe and would have been thrilled to have been included in their pantheon but they would not admit him in that glorious group, because he refused to give up writing tunes. Of course now we’re all so glad that he stuck to his guns and wrote all those beautiful melodies, and I’m proud of him that he made that decision, even though it cost him at the time in terms of certain kinds of reputation. But anyway, that was when I was really little. But then, around the time he wrote Chichester Psalms, when I was about 12, that was the moment he decided ‘you know, I don’t care what people think. I’m just going to write what makes me feel good’ and he wrote the Chichester Psalms on sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic duties that year. Instead of writing that big, important piece, he wound up writing what he felt was a very modest and very warm and just for his own fun, piece. Which of course has become one of his most beloved pieces, as often happens in this world. When you’re least concerned with making an important impact, you [won’t] wind up writing the thing that came out with ease and has the most yumminess in it. And so at that age I was very involved in his writing of Chichester Psalms and heard a lot about it, and we all went over for the premiere at Chichester Cathedral. That was a wonderful experience for me. That was the first time I really felt I had come up close and personal with my father’s process ES: The New York Philharmonic is an international associate with the Barbican and as part of their residency at the Barbican, you and Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s current Music Director, are including a Young Person’s concert in their visit to London in February. It’s a little postcard from New York, isn’t it? The city was so important to your father as well, and he wrote a number of love letters to it, including three of his broadway shows, On the Town, Wonderful Town and of course West Side Story. Two of which are in the programme. Tell us a bit of what the thinking was behind it. JB: Yes, it is true that New York was just the perfect home for my father, because it’s probably the only entity on the planet that could keep up with him. It never goes to sleeps, it just goes around the clock just like my Father used to. And he loved it here, and I still live in New York and I still love it myself. So I feel very connected to all these threads, my father and New York City and the New York Philharmonic and it’s such fun to nip them all together and present them at the Barbican. So in this show there will be excerpts from On the Town, the dance music and also excerpts from West Side Story, I think there’s going to be something from West Side Story. And a few other things besides. But for myself, maybe the most fun element of the show for me is that I will be in a rare appearance, singing one of the songs from On the Town that was cut from the show before it came to Broadway. It’s a blues number, it’s called ‘Ain’t Got No Tears Left’, and I think it’s hilarious and magical that I get to sing this song with a jazz quartet consisting of four members of the New York Philharmonic no less. I can’t take it seriously because I’m not really a professional singer but it’s such a treat to be able to sing this blues-y song with such an illustrious quartet. ES: Speaking of jazz, from his Symphony No 2, Age of Anxiety, which again showed the importance of words, the influence of words – W H Auden in this case, you’re doing a little section from the piece called ‘Mask’. JB: Right, and that’s the exact reason I’m singing ‘Ain’t Got No Tears Left’ because after the song was cut from On the Town, my father recycled it and put it in a typical example of breaking down barriers and crossing genres, he put it into his Second Symphony, Age of Anxiety, and changed it around quite a bit – made it go faster, gave it a funny rhythm and now it’s the scherzo in this symphony which is rather more like a piano concerto. So the scherzo is played on the piano. And it’s one of my absolutely favourite pieces of my dad’s. ES: It’s extraordinary, it’s really quite wacky and quirky, and has that quality that he often managed to convey and that is of music that was written down sounding like it was being improvised in the moment. JB: Exactly, that was his amazing trick that he was able to pull off in a lot of his music that had jazz elements. Certainly in West Side Story we hear it. He has a piece called Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, which is for Big Band and the jazz purists sniff their noses at these examples of so called ‘jazz’ in the symphonic context, because they say ‘well it has no improvisation in it, therefore it is not jazz’. ES: Well they said that about Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, didn’t they? JB: Yes they did and they do ES: And they were wrong. JB: But it is certainly wrong that both Gershwin and my father were capable of composing written down music that has all the spontaneity, the same spontaneous quality, as jazz improvisation. ES: I think the dance music from On the Town is remarkable and I think the show was remarkable for having been the first Broadway show to have these dance episodes written in, I think something like seven of them in the piece as a whole and they do convey all aspects of this town, from the solitude to the manic, busy rushing about. How are you going to introduce these things to the audience? Are you taking your cue from the way your dad used to do it, or is it very much you? JB: Well I think I’ll just let everybody find out but what I will say, I could talk about these dance pieces from On the Town all day long because I think they’re so extraordinary and one of the things that’s amazing about them, and I may talk about this in the concert, is the way they are through-composed in a very symphonic way. Just the way Beethoven took ‘da da da da’ [sings opening to Beethoven’s Symphony No 5] and made that the motif from which he derived the entire first movement of his Fifth Symphony, similarly my father took the notes of ‘New York, New York’ and used those four notes to compose so much of this music. Particularly the Times Square episode, and it is really designed the way symphonies are designed. And I daresay that’s the first time, and almost the only time, that Broadway dance music was designed, was composed, in this way. ES: There is an Aaron Copland piece in this programme as well isn’t there? From his piece Music for a Great City. JB: Well definitely. You can’t go wrong putting Bernstein and Copland on the same programme because they were such great friends, for starters, and also because they have so much in common. They both lived in New York City and they both celebrated New York ES: What were your dad’s foibles. What were the good things and the bad things? My goodness, he celebrated youth, we’re talking about young people and the way he made music happen for young people. He really hated getting old, how badly did that affect him? JB: You’re right, he hated getting old. He really counted on his energy to get through everything. And as his energy dwindled as he got older, I think it just made him frantic. He was an adult back in the second half of the 20th century, back when people depended a lot on pharmaceuticals. Doctors were very quick to prescribe uppers and downers and my father was a chronic insomniac. So for decades and decades of his adult life he had been taking sleeping pills and that of course meant he would be groggy in the morning and then he needed uppers to wake him up so he could go to a rehearsal at 10 in the morning. That takes a tremendous toll on your body. All of that, combined with my father’s relentless smoking and a lot of drinking besides, I think that took an even bigger toll on his body and probably shortened his life ES: He should have been with us a whole lot longer. But he would have been thrilled, don’t you agree Jamie, that so many of the pieces that he thought nobody was interested in, are now performed all over the world. Pieces like Mass, which I know we’ve talked about many times before, has become a real cult piece with three or four recordings and performances all over the place. JB: And coming to the Proms ES: Is it coming to the Proms? JB: Yes next fall, next summer ES: Now there’s a bit of exciting news. But I mean isn’t it great that, I guess somewhere he’s feeling ‘well, I got there in the end’ JB: Yes. I like to think that he’s definitely having the last, delighted laugh about it all. It’s a pity that he died before he could have seen Mass performed at the Vatican, given that the Catholic church had such a little hissy fit about the piece when it first came out and then in the end it was requested by Pope John Paul II, so that would have been a tremendous gratifying experience. ES: That piece celebrated everything he was, it was like, I always thought it was his most important piece JB: I agree with you that it had more of him in it than any other piece he wrote. Voice: The Mass is ended. Go in peace BE: Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out

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