Monday, June 18, 2018

A Hero's Life at the Segerstrom

Anne Akiko Meyers and Carl St. Clair, with Dennis Kim (left) and the Pacific Symphony.


Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

It’s doubtless a coincidence, surprising but nonetheless welcome, that the final concerts in the 2017-18 seasons of the relatively adjacent Long Beach Symphony and Pacific Symphony orchestras both began with works by Glinka. A couple of weeks ago we had an affectionate and insightful account of Kamarinskaya from the LBSO under Music Director Eckart Preu (reviewed here). Kamarinskaya arguably remains, for all its merits, on the fringes of the orchestral repertoire, but the Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture sits squarely in the center of it as a staple concert-opener, and it was impeccably done by the Pacific Symphony under its Music Director, Carl St. Clair.

Glinka during the composition of the opera “Ruslan
and Lyudmila”: 1887 oil painting by Ilya Repin.
The program annotator rightly observed that this piece has become a bit of a speed-playing test for orchestras and conductors, an excuse to push ever further the limits of string players’ fingers to get around those opening runs of 16th-notes without them blurring into a gabble, but nothing like that happened here. The opening is marked Presto, but Maestro St. Clair couldn’t have been far off the Urtext metronome mark of half-note=140 – fast, but not so fast that when the more lyrical second subject arrives (with no tempo change in the score), the brakes don’t have to be slammed on to avoid it sounding over-hasty.

As a result, the performance was truly integrated, coming out “all in one” with lithe, precise strings throughout propelled by imperative, crisp timpani tuned almost to the point of sounding like period instruments (shout-out to timpanist Todd Miller here). Scorning any attempt to break the five-minute barrier, this performance of Glinka’s overture was a joy, and a great start to the concert.

In her pre-concert conversation with host Alan Chapman, the star violinist Anne Akiko Meyers (programming an interesting miscellany of three short items rather than the more usual single concerto) waxed eloquent about the unique quality of the sound that can be drawn from the instrument which she now plays, the violin made by Giuseppe Guarneri in 1741 once owned by the 19th century Belgian composer/virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps.

Maurice Ravel.
There could surely have been no clearer demonstration of this than her account of Ravel’s Tzigane, the long opening Lento quasi cadenza solo of which she projected with raw, passionate intensity. In the Glinka I’d found the video projection of conductor and players screened above the orchestra rather distracting, but here there was no gainsaying the added value of seeing in close-up the nimbleness, range and energy of Ms. Meyers’ playing technique, from searingly intense double-stopping to the airiest of pizzicati, as she triumphed over Ravel’s bristling difficulties. When the orchestra entered (with strings reduced by a couple of desks from the Glinka), there was more to relish in the soloist’s immaculate duetting with the prominent harp part played by Mindy Ball.

Anne Akiko Meyers with the
Vieuxtemps Guarneri violin.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Ms. Meyers’ other two selections. She’d also talked to Alan Chapman about how she finally persuaded an initially reluctant Morten Lauridsen to undertake a commission, agreeing on an arrangement of his O Magnum Mysterium. Originally written for mixed a cappella choir, this new version for violin and orchestra joins a range of other reworkings of this enormously popular work, including for male choir, voice and piano, violin and piano, orchestral brass, symphonic wind band, and string orchestra. But devotedly though it was played and conducted, the transfer to instruments didn’t, I felt, particularly enhance or reveal new facets to what is in any case, for me, a rather cloying and anodyne piece.

Her third item was a similarly new arrangement of “Somewhere” from Bernstein's West Side Story, here decked out in harmonies that seemed to sidestep almost perversely those of the original, resulting in a quasi-Delian haze surrounding a solo line that felt unnecessarily over-decorated in places. However, for a concert whose second half was to be filled by one of the most majestic of orchestral blockbusters, this was nonetheless an inventive and unusual first half that studiously avoided all the usual suspects.

Two studies of Richard Strauss conducting, c.1900.
An arrogantly world-bestriding hero erupts onto the scene; he’s met by barbs and flails of criticism; he battles his enemies; he triumphs over them; he elaborately praises his own achievements… remind you of anyone? No, I thought not. In any case, Richard Strauss at the age of 34 already had plenty to boast about, though his Ein Heldenleben Op.40 has always come in for head-shaking on account of its shameless self-aggrandizement, alongside recognition of the musical splendors that have continued to ensure its place in concert programs with the resources to supply the close on 100 players that the score demands.

Following an exceptionally informative account from the podium by Maestro St. Clair of the “hero’s life” enshrined in the work’s six lengthy sections, he proceeded to conduct a gloriously rich and expansive performance of it. With a duration of around 50 minutes it most reminded me in its epic breadth of Sir John Barbirolli’s final recording, on a treasured LP of decades ago. However, from the very first bar of the opening “The Hero” section, the PSO’s massed lower strings and principal horn Keith Popejoy (rapidly to be joined by his eight colleagues) thoroughly outclassed in their thrilling boldness and unanimity the playing on that recording, matching any other world-class rival ensembles you might care to name.

When after the climactic fff statement of the “Hero” theme, the “Critics” made their first appearance on a large array of woodwind, they were almost too immaculate to achieve the schnarrend (snarling) that Strauss asks for, but the tenor tuba/bass tuba duo that represent the nineteenth-century Viennese music critic Doktor Dehring (a particular bugbear of Strauss) were something else. Previously I had thought of them rather as the Statler and Waldorf of the critics, just grumbling away in the background, but St. Clair cleverly isolated and emphasized them so that their four-note motif, repeated again and again throughout the work, became a potent undermining force of chilling negativity.

Dennis Kim.
The next section of Ein Heldenleben, depicting “The Hero’s Companion”, takes up nearly one-third of its entire length, and can easily seem a near-interminable waiting around for something (the Battle) to happen. The central figure is represented by solo violin in a part easily as substantial as many concerto movements, and here the performance of Dennis Kim, the PSO’s new Concertmaster-Designate, was beyond praise. Variously capricious, tender, abrupt, impassioned, querulous, soulful, contemplative, his playing led the ear on and on, so that for once the section seemed not a bar too long.

I confess that doubts about the overall conception of the performance did begin to creep in as the Hero advanced through his fourth (“Battlefield”, starting with some nicely distanced offstage trumpets), fifth (“Works of Peace”), and sixth (“Retirement from this World and Consummation”) sections. Was Maestro St. Clair drawing it all out just a little too lovingly for overall coherence and balance? Perhaps. I recalled another classic recorded performance, the one under another knighted Brit, Sir Thomas Beecham, where more seemed to be achieved with less. However, there was no resisting the power and beauty of this great orchestra at full stretch enrobed in the Segerstrom Hall’s wonderful acoustic. After a final knell-of-doom reminder from the tubas, Mr. Kim’s fabulously tender solo violin playing against soft multi-subdivided strings brought that Consummation to a conclusion which really justified the standing ovation that it received. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, June 14 2017, 8 p.m.
Images: The performers: Courtesy Anne Akiko Meyers website; Glinka: Wikimedia Commons; Ravel: Courtesy WRTI; Strauss: Wikimedia Commons; Dennis Kim: Courtesy The Buffalo News.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Los Angeles Master Chorale Revisits the Brahms Requiem

LA Master Chorale at Disney Hall in the Brahms Requiem

Disney Hall, Los Angeles Music Center
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Orchestra and Soloists


Angst is a constant presence in the new century, and the local music scene has picked up its zeitgeist as both mirror and remedy. Last weekend, the Ojai Music Festival’s usual bucolic mix of new music and old birdcalls was turned on its head by Music Director-cum-violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who completed on Sunday a long weekend of dark, even dystopian works. But down the coast on the same Sunday came, as if on cue, a sonic palliative for modern angst with the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s season finale performance of the Brahms Requiem

Preceding it, however, two recent a cappella choral works transitioned the audience's ears from a lean contemporary sensibility to the more familiar complexity of nineteenth-century Brahms. It was a savvy touch for Music Director Grant Gershon. Both of the new work’s respective composers, Caroline Shaw and David Lang, have prominently featured in recent seasons at the Ojai Music Festival.

Shaw’s haunting Fly Away I is a spar deconstruction of America’s church hymn tradition, depicting a spiritual sojourn from an insubstantial somewhere to a place perhaps never to be known. Lang’s Where You Go, another haunting piece -- receiving here its West Coast premiere -- quotes the biblical Ruth, who promises to follow wherever the widowed Naomi needs to journey. The reference to Ruth links directly to the fifth movement of the Brahms, based on the same text. Gershon had earlier observed of these works, “Both are open-ended as well, asking questions. This performance of the Brahms is the answer to the questions that the first two pieces will raise.” Ethereally delivered as preludes by the Chorale, the two pieces felt like angelic annunciations for the Brahms to follow.

The Requiem was inspired, in part, by aspects of Brahms’s personal life. His mentor, Robert Schumann had died after some years ill in an asylum, and Brahms had become close to his friend’s grieving wife, Clara. By the time he completed what was to be the work’s fifth movement, Brahms himself was lamenting the recent loss of his mother, in whose memory it was written. 

With real personalities so much a part of its genesis, Brahms made of this work a personal statement, assembling his own text with selections from the Gospels and Old Testament. He would focus this work less on those lost to death than those remaining in need of comfort and divine explanation. Brahms announces this agenda in the opening lines: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The Requiem, long on lyrical reflections of sorrow, is relatively shorter with reassuring promises of rejoicing, redemption, and triumph over death. By not over-employing the brass in particular, when these hopeful moments do come, they are cathartic. 

From a performance perspective, what can frustrate in this work is Brahms’s preference for slow tempi and thick textures. He writes felicitous vocal lines that skillfully interweave with each other, but their combined effects can, if not carefully delivered, lead to muddy  inner voices. The orchestral writing in particular is jam-packed with moving lines and colors, as well as close harmonies written not just in the treble regions but also in the bass. Colors can blend in these thick textures. 

Baritone Justin Hopkins
Likewise, the composer’s preference for moderate to slow tempi across seven movements, lovely as any single one is, can become soporific unless given careful attention in performance. While slow pacing is also an issue in each of the four Brahms symphonies, it is especially the case with the Requiem; its seven movements are nearly equivalent in scope to two full symphonies.

This is where a hall like the Disney, a conductor like Grant Gershon, and a choral powerhouse like the Master Chorale, can make a difference. These ensembles and their leader have known their way around this work for many years, having performed it here as recently as five years ago. By now they have finely tuned its pacing to the Disney's clean acoustics, which allow more distinct colorings than the thicker resonances of many other halls. 

Coming in at approximately 70 minutes, Gershon’s moderately brisk pacing -- faster than Karajan’s stately 75 minutes for DG, slower than Gardiner’s very quick 65 minutes for Philips – allowed for clear lines and lively movement. Gershon and his choral forces and orchestra managed to avoid lugubrious homogenizations of textures, as they shaped each Brahmsian phrase to maximum effect

Gershon with soprano Jeanine De Bique
The two soloists -- bright-voiced soprano Jeanine De Bique and authoritative baritone Justin Hopkins -- humanized the reflective drama. De Bique did so in the fifth movement with passages from the Book of Ruth, suggestive of Brahms’s mother. Hopkins, in movements three and six, reminded mourners of their mortality, even as he anticipated for all a better life to come after death. 

The orchestra's contribution was solid but not quite as precisely delivered as that of the vocal forces on this occasion. Minor intonation and phrasing issues cropped up now and again. The Chorale’s singers, however, triumphed in as clear and even a vocal a delivery of the text as I can ever remember. An impressive outing overall.

With twenty-two performances since the Music Center opened a half century ago, the Brahms Requiem remains a work not just well-known, but still very much beloved by L.A. audiences. 

Gershon conducts the Brahms Requiem at Disney Hall.

Further Thoughts on the Brahms Requiem 

Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), so named by Johannes Brahms because it was to be sung in the language of the people, not in priestly Latin, is so frequently performed one is tempted to take it for granted. Over an hour in length, its seven movements would constitute the composer’s longest musical statement. In it, Brahms steers clear of judgement day theatrics, leaving depictions of shock-and-awe to overtly dramatic composers like the earlier Berlioz and later Verdi.

Brahms had gained some of the inspiration for his Requiem from Franz Schubert’s then recently discovered cantata, Lazarus. Schubert's introverted drama was much concerned with how the living cope with loss, but he abandoned the project, for reasons unknown, at the point where Lazarus is buried and before he was brought back to life. Even so, the extensive torso remains a masterpiece of sustained mood, which impressed Brahms, and perhaps suggested how he would approach his own work of similar narrative.

Raised a Lutheran, Brahms positioned the work to dwell in a narrow emotional ground between sorrow and hope, hewing close to the pietistic sentiments of the Protestant Reformation. He had studied techniques of Germany's Baroque masters and, resident in Vienna for most of his career, was also a choral conductor there. Brahms's mastery of Baroque forms was imposing; his fugues in this work strike me as more proficient than many in the works of Beethoven. (The Missa Solemnis in particular comes to mind.)

On its path to solace, the Brahms Requiem, one could say, emits fifty shades of gray. Its reflective movements can even drag. Three of the seven have tempo markings of langsam (slow), three andante or mässig (moderate) and the last one feierlich (solemn). Lively sections conclude many of the movements, especially II and VI, but the main tempi throughout are slow.

There are those, notably the late music critic Alan Rich and composer Benjamin Britten, who could not abide the work. However, Brahms’s long ruminations on sorrow also give his moments of elation more cathartic value. By employing his brass sparingly, for instance, their arrival is all the more thrilling.

A Personal Note

Certain choral works are for some of us even more rewarding to appreciate from the inside (the chorister’s position) than the outside (the audience). Perhaps, because it was the first choral work I ever sang in with orchestra -- at Crenshaw Christian Church, in Inglewood, California -- it remains one of those scores inside of which I would still prefer to reside. For this reason, and for many more having to do with the work's intrinsic musical values, the Brahms Requiem still travels well for me through the years and into these troubled modern times.

As I depart this discussion, I would like to pay tribute to my first choral director, Don Fontana, who directed the choirs at Crenshaw Christian Church, in Inglewood during the 1960's. The church was located just a half block from my family home. Don was also our choral director at Morningside High School, and in my senior year there, after laying aside the clarinet of band days after my sophomore year, and the oboe of orchestra days after my junior, I sang in Don's choirs at school and church as a senior. Don was an inspirational man, a bundle of musical energy, and he became a close friend of  our family for life. Rest in Peace, Don Fontana. How lovely must be thy dwelling place.


Photo credits: Patrick Brown for LA Master Chorale

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

'Famous Father Girl': Window into a Legend

Jamie Bernstein: Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein has described her newly minted book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (Harper Collins, ISBN-13: 978-0062641359), as “a love letter to my whole family." It is a love letter filled with candid, disarmingly frank memories: an insider’s view of what it was like to grow up as the eldest daughter of the most influential American musician of the 20th century: Leonard Bernstein, or “LB,” as Jamie came to call him in her young adult years.

Bernstein clearly has inherited her father’s gift for self-expression in words, as well as a goodly amount of his boldness and charisma. She is impressively articulate in her descriptions, not only of family events but of her feelings about everything: from her parents’ relationship with each other, to her relationship with her siblings Alexander and Nina, to her own adolescent angst. Her writing is fearlessly honest; she’s not afraid to analyze her father’s faults, to criticize him, to express her unease at his criticism of her, and of her mother, Felicia. But behind each and every word lies a profound affection for the man she calls “Daddy”—who was so frequently absent from the family abode with his conducting tours that she and her siblings “never felt we got enough of him.”

The love between a father and a daughter is a complex subject that has been examined under a high-power psychological microscope since the time of the ancient Greeks. In Bernstein’s case the complexities are compounded to the power of 40x, by virtue of LB’s stratospheric level of stardom: unprecedented for a musician who was the first American to be named music director of a major symphony orchestra—the New York Philharmonic—not to mention being the youngest ever—and Jewish.

Notoriety is a double-edged sword, and LB’s fame was of mythical proportions. Bernstein acknowledges both positive and negative aspects of her father’s renown, describes how she and her siblings “created a force field…a layer of insulation from the raucous, confusing world” of their parents, with its endless stream of high-status friends and colleagues converging on the Bernstein abode; and how that force field paralleled the similarly insular relationship of her father and his siblings to their own parents, Sam and Jennie Bernstein.

Leonard, Alexander, Felicia, Nina, Jamie Bernstein
Photo, Harper Collins
Bernstein’s anecdotes of that perplexing family cluster range from amusing to cringeworthy. As a 4-year-old observing her parents dressed to the nines for the opening of Candide in 1956, she asks where they are going. “We’re going to see Candide!” her mother tells her. “They were going to see candy?” she writes, and wants to go with them. But when her mother says it’s only for grownups, Jamie doesn’t understand. “Candy—for grownups? Impossible…‘But I want to see the candy!’” she cries, as her parents bustle off, leaving her and her tantrum to their devoted Chilean nanny, Julia.

Jamie, Alexander, Julia
Photo, Harper Collins
Later in life, Bernstein recounts tales of her admittedly “squirmy adolescence.” She expresses her glee at its discoveries (e.g. meeting the Beatles in person) and her painful embarrassment at its discomforts (sex rearing its ugly head). But she delights in her father’s efforts to remain integrated into the progressive phases of her life, and to share in her discoveries. She especially takes pleasure in his fascination with rock music. Whenever a new Beatles album appeared in the household, she writes, “…we’d sit together on his couch to scrutinize the lyrics while the album played.” “Wow, can you believe that chord?” her father says. “So fresh!”

In many ways, Bernstein perceived her father first and foremost a teacher; and reveled in his incorporating what he gleaned from his daughter into his Young People’s Concerts, often showcasing rock musicians as guests. Young Jamie wasn’t old enough to comprehend Janis Ian’s song Society’s Child, but “Daddy completely grasped the power of its music and lyrics.”

The tone of the book turns darker as the family’s secrets and misfortunes come to the forefront. In tandem with a world of glamour lived large, tragedy and unnerving revelations ensue for the young Bernstein. She writes openly about her confusion over rumors of her father’s homosexuality, which for an adolescent was especially distressing. “He was extravagantly affectionate with everyone: young and old, male and female. How could I possibly tell what any behavior meant?” she writes. “I was bewildered and upset…but in any case, my own existence seemed living proof that the story was not a simple one.”

Leonard, Felicia Bernstein
Photo, Harper Collins
Most painful of all was her mother’s illness and tragic death at the age of 56. In the midst of LB’s abandoning Felicia for another man, then trying to reconcile with her, are Felicia’s untold suffering and agonizing decline, expressed with great anguish by her eldest daughter. But when Jamie’s daughter Frankie is born, Bernstein also voices her amazement at the joys of motherhood—her “secret, speechless ardor”—with touching emotion: “I was besotted with the marvel of her; I could not begin to express what happened to me when I smelled the top of her head, listened to her milky whimpers, held her dumpling foot in the hollow of my hand.”

In light of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, and the many celebrations taking place to commemorate his prominence, Famous Father Girl fits squarely into the list of must-see and must-read celebratory phenomena related to this monumental occasion. Compellingly written, alternately humorous and poignant, continually entertaining, the book serves as a window into the core of a quintessentially illustrious, multifaceted man, his family, and the daughter who loves him—not always unconditionally, but with tenderness and deep-rooted affection.

“Nothing conveys Daddy’s deepest essence better than his own music,” Bernstein writes. “When we listen to that music, it’s the next best thing to getting a hug from Daddy himself.”

Jamie Bernstein; photo, Harper Collins

Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein released on June 12.


Photo credits: Harper Collins, Steve Sherman
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Mixed Bag from Inna Faliks at RHUMC

Inna Faliks.


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Building a program is a tricky thing. A grouping of works which, merely listed, seems just to be a heterogeneous mixture, may prove in performance to have a mutually illuminating coherence that makes for a satisfying whole. On the other hand, a collection of pieces can turn out to be just that and nothing more, and I regret to say that was how the four (five including the encore) items played by Ukrainian pianist Inna Faliks at the June “Second Sundays” recital, taken together, seemed to me. 

Rodion Shchedrin.
But that’s not to say there wasn’t some striking music-making in the individual works. The very opening was so explosive that it must have given some audience-members a bit of a shock. Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932) is now a doyen of Russian composers, but when he wrote his Six Pieces for Solo Piano he was very much an up-and-coming young man in Soviet music, as may be gleaned from a video clip of him playing the last of them, the Basso Ostinato, which dates from 1961. If anything, Ms. Faliks’ performance of the piece was even more ferocious and torrential than the composer’s, and firmly established her virtuoso credentials. 

From this Modernist if rather mechanistic squib it was quite a jump back to late Beethoven, though the Six Bagatelles Op.126 (his last work for solo piano, dating from 1824) are, despite the seemingly throwaway title, as timeless and many-sided as any of the larger and more celebrated works of his last years. Such evidence as there is indicates that Beethoven viewed the set as being of some significance in his output, and a unified work; this was certainly how Ms. Faliks played them, with barely a pause between each and a full clutch of repeats observed – as far as I could tell without a score to hand. Overall her playing had an engagingly impulsive and improvisatory character, skillfully observing Beethoven’s turn-on-a-dime contrasts of pace and mood within each piece. 

Beethoven nears the end: drawing by Oswald Charles Barret
(1892-1945) from The Oxford Companion to music, 1938.

One of the pleasures of regularly attending the South Bay’s cornucopia of chamber recitals is that, alongside discovering previously unknown pieces, like the Shchedrin, one gets to hear different interpretations of more familiar works. Both Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, K. 397/385g and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major Op. 61 had turned up in the hands of other pianists, as reviewed here and here, not so long ago, and it was interesting to hear Ms. Faliks’ take on them.

Mozart’s Fantasia is a strange creation: for well over half of its scant six minutes or so, it alternates between somber reflection, sudden agitation, even despair… and then sideslips into an almost “only kidding, folks!” cheeriness just for the last minute-and-a-half, or thereabouts. What to make of it? Ms. Faliks went full-tilt tragic for the main body of the piece, and then almost (but for me not quite) managed to avoid a fractured effect by playing that end section of it quite slowly and wistfully.

Chopin's late (1846) Polonaise-Fantaisie is one of his most complex and elaborately discursive works, and Ms. Faliks determinedly avoided getting becalmed or any sense of woolgathering by a straight-arrow approach, but which however, through a certain absence of dynamic light and shade, seemed to convey some lack of emotional involvement.

Finally came an encore which demonstrated that, if the Shchedrin had shown her left hand to be iron-fingered in its relentless hammering of bass octaves, then the fingers of her right to be positively diamond-tipped in their delineation of the bell effects that characterize the third of Liszt’s Grandes Études de Paganini, the one appropriately entitled “La campanella”. This was a virtuoso display indeed, if perhaps sounding a bit more like a school summons to attention or a tocsin than atmospheric ecclesiastical tinklings. 


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, June 10, 2017. Photos: Inna Faliks: Performer website; Rodion Shchedrin: Courtesy International Maya Plisetskatya Rodion Shchedrin Foundation; Beethoven: Courtesy Alexandre Piacsek.

Reminding the World Who Leonard Bernstein Was

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Jamie Bernstein: Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein

Erica Miner: Traveling the US narrating your Bernstein Beat concerts, you encountered many musicians who have “a personal story to tell” about your father: “a moment when they’d had a meaningful exchange…that they never forgot.” For me, working with him at Tanglewood and the Met Opera were life-changing experiences. Do you still get this kind of reaction and sentiment from musicians you meet now, or are we all getting too old? 

Jamie Bernstein: No. More now than ever. Everywhere my brother, sister and I go—and of course we’re traveling so much this year—people come up to us, both in the audiences and in the orchestras. I cannot tell you how many of them have that same thing to say. “I had this conversation with your father and he made me feel like I was the only person he was interested in, in the world. We had this incredibly meaningful exchange and I never forgot it.” Or they say, “It’s because of the Young People’s Concerts that I am in this audience—in this orchestra— today.” Over recent years, I began to grasp the degree of impact my father had for so many people who are music lovers or musicians. I think that to this very day, a significant percentage of the butts in seats in concert halls are there because they got their start with Young People’s Concerts. Honestly. And of course they’re dying out now, winnowing down, and not being replaced. In the 60s, 70s and 80s these gigantic concert halls were built and now they can’t fill them. I don’t know how this is all going to shake out eventually, but it’s quite a problem. 

EM: There’s nobody who can quite replace your dad. 

JB: That is true. Even if a conductor came along who was as good as he was—Gustavo Dudamel, or Yannick Nézet-Séguin, fabulous conductors, but they’re not also educators, composers, activists and all the other things my father also was simultaneously. The simultaneity is what’s hard to replicate. 

EM: Also his magnetism and charisma were just unique. I always tell people there was only one Lenny. But there’s a good chance today’s young people can carry on his legacy. For example, when I was in San Francisco in 2013 to hear West Side Story with Michael Tilson Thomas, I got to talk to a lot of the young people in the cast. When I told them I actually had worked with your father, they practically bowed down to the floor. 

JB: [Laughs.]

EM: They said, “You actually knew him?” So I have a feeling he’ll just live on, and his impact will carry on with the next generation who love and revere him. I’m hoping so. 

JB: I’m hoping so, too. 

EM: Toward the end of the book, you write, “But nothing conveys Daddy’s deepest essence better than his own music.” Perhaps an unfair question, but can you name some of your own personal favorites among his compositions?

Leonard, Jamie Bernstein; photo, Harper Collins
 JB: Oh! The problem with this question is that it changes depending on what I just heard. Just a couple of hours ago I was at a coaching session in this Songfest program I’m participating in this week in LA, and this very young singer was being coached in Zizi’s Lament. The most fabulous little song, so ingenious. It’s a Gregory Corso poem, which is also divine, edgy and funny. I’m sitting there thinking, “Oh my God, this is one of the best songs my father ever wrote.” But that’s just ‘cause I heard it two hours ago [Laughs]. Last week I heard Serenade and thought, “This is really the best of all my father’s symphonic works.” Every time I hear that piece I love it more. But when it comes to evoking the totality of my father, you have to look at Mass. Precisely because Mass is so “kitchen sink-y.” It has so many bells and whistles and different flavors all mushed together that evoke my father in such a holistic way. Also I was really the right age when he wrote it, so I went through his experience of writing it. I think he had his kids so much in mind when he composed it. That’s why he put in all the rock music. It was just so much of its time and for our time. I have a really big relationship to Mass. What about Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, which you don’t hear that often? It’s so cool. It goes by in a blinding flash, about 11 minutes long. 

EM: And West Side Story. I’ve read that not a day goes by that it is not performed somewhere in the world. 

JB: It may very well be true. It gets around. in other ways, too because of the movie. It’s really that movie that put Leonard Bernstein in the mainstream. These days young people don’t really know who he is anymore unless they’re in music. But they might have seen West Side Story, the movie. That’s partly why the centennial comes at such a wonderful moment; why it’s this precious, unrepeatable opportunity for my brother, sister and me to remind the world who he was, and to introduce him to young people. And good for West Side Story, because really it does not get old. It’s amazing. 

EM: It is. First of all, the music, which nobody can sit still while they’re listening to. Also the socio-political atmosphere and the connection to what’s going on right now. 

JB: It’s as relevant as ever. 

EM: If not more so. I’m always struck with the courage it took to bring up those issues at that time. They’re still scary. 

JB: Yes! For starters, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet hit on some themes that never get old. Intolerance, hatred, that part of human existence never seems to subside. Updated in West Side Story was a way of thinking about it that stays super relevant for us in this century and the last. I just saw a concert version with the Philadelphia Orchestra back in the fall, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting. When they were doing the song, America—this was just after all the hurricanes—they sang, “Nobody Knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America.” He stopped the orchestra dead and just let that line hang in the silence. The audience went [Gasps]. Then there was applause. It was really something. Quite a moment. 

EM: “If you’re all white in America…” 

JB: That was a line that Sondheim added for the movie and wasn’t in the original. But it was a good addition for sure. 

EM: I think they may have made more changes in that song that almost any other. 

JB: They made a ton for some reason. Part of it was they decided to make it for not just the girls but also the guys. 

EM: Anything Sondheim does is so brilliant, it doesn’t matter what it is. 

JB: No matter how it goes, if he did it it’s going to be okay. 

EM: Of the many celebratory events paying tribute to your father’s centenary, which are most significant for you? 

JB: Oh my gosh, where to begin. I made a film documentary, Crescendo—the Power of Music, about El Sistema, the youth orchestra for social change from Venezuela, coming to the US. I got very immersed in that. As a result, I would up going to a lot of youth orchestra concerts. Over the years I found myself having a lot more fun at concerts by youth orchestras than with professional orchestras. I just like the energy better. This year I’ve had the opportunity to hear a lot of young people in youth ensembles performing Bernstein music. Honestly, that is my favorite thing. When I was in Tucson, Arizona, a high school did Chichester Psalms, just with piano, harp and percussion. It was so touching, so beautiful, I was just awash, a mess of tears. Not the most perfect version I’ve ever heard, but the heart of it. Afterwards all these kids came up to me for hugs and selfies and to talk about how much they’d fallen in love with my dad’s music. Kids who didn’t know anything about him. Their choral teacher, who’s a genius, got them all excited, really brought them up to speed. Chichester Psalms is not easy—that’s another favorite, by the way, it’s just wonderful. These kids got into it, gave it their utmost, really pulled off this very challenging music, and had just fallen in love with the whole thing of it, the whole Bernstein of it, and that was for me the most gratifying possible experience. There’s been a lot of that sort of thing. I took the Bernstein Beat to Sevilla, Spain, en Español with two youth orchestras combined into one. It took a lot of rehearsal, and the conductor had to work them really hard, but they were fantastic. They so loved the music. It has so much energy in it, all that rhythm and exuberance. Young people love it. It really speaks to them. It’s perfect for kids. They just threw themselves into it. That’s been my ongoing favorite experience so far this year. 

EM: Jamie, thank you so much for spending this time with me. This has been such a pleasure. Kudos on Famous Father Girl, and I wish you the best possible success. 

JB: Thank you for asking really good and fun questions. 

Jamie Bernstein’s Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein releases on June 12.

Photo, Harper Collins

Photo credits: Steve Sherman, Harper Collins
Erica can be reached at:

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Jamie Bernstein Celebrates Remarkable Centennial

Photo, Steve Sherman

Jamie Bernstein: Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein

“Sometimes it was purely great to have Leonard Bernstein for a father.” 

Leonard Bernstein was an American Classic. No one would question that he occupied the top echelon of every musical field he chose to pursue, whether as conductor, composer, pianist or teacher. Hardly a musician who was trained in this country has not felt the influence of his “total embrace” of music. 

Of the countless celebrations commemorating the 100th anniversary of this musical icon’s birth, perhaps none is more heartfelt than his oldest daughter Jamie’s newly minted memoir, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein. I caught up with Jamie during her whirlwind book-related travels to discuss the birth of her book—and to reminisce a bit about old times. 

Erica Miner: Jamie, congratulations! You must be crazed with centennial activities. 

Jamie Bernstein: Yes! I never stop running around. I’m doing so many things at the same time. I’ve mostly been a concert narrator for the past 18 years. That was like a training for this year’s marathon. It never stops. It’s like being in exam week for a year. Just wild. Everything I’m doing now is going into high gear. Narrating concerts, giving talks, writing articles. This wonderful website that WGBH in Boston just put up a few months ago, their first whole year is devoted to Bernstein and the centennial. My brother and sister and I have been giving little reports from our various runouts having to do with the centennial. I can’t complain, though. It’s very exciting. 

EM: You must be thrilled to see your book come to fruition. 

JB: Oh, I’ve got to tell you, Erica. I’ve been a writer pretty much all my life. I almost didn’t allow myself to fantasize that I would really write a book and that it would be published one day. So for this to have actually come to pass is beyond anything I dared hope for. Last week I received my first hard copies of the book. Holding it in my hands, all pound-and-a-half of it, I couldn’t even believe the thrill, honestly. It’s a pretty good feeling, kind of addictive. Makes me wonder what the next one’s gonna be [Laughs]. 

EM: Do you think of Famous Father Girl as a love letter to your dad?

Photo, Harper Collins
JB: It’s a love letter to my whole family. Definitely to my dad, but also to my mother, brother and sister, without whom I don’t think I could have gotten through all of it. It was so crucial that I had these two siblings with whom to create, as I described in the book, this sort of membrane together that insulated us a bit from all the craziness. It’s funny, because my father did the same thing with his two siblings. We grew up observing how the three of them were together. They were so close, they had so many in jokes, they even had their own language. So we had this perfect template for a way to be ourselves. We sort of have our own language, too, a combination of their language plus Spanish, which was our mother’s native language. We grew up bilingual. 

EM: The kind of craziness in your family is like anybody else’s, times thousands. 

JB: It all was sort of in an amplifier, yes. 

EM: You wrote that your dad wanted to be considered a composer of worth at a time when academically accepted composers were writing serial music and he wanted to write tunes. Was there something about the era your dad lived in that defined him as an artist? 

JB: Oh, and how. It was his lot in life to be a composer who loved to write melodies at a time when 12-tone was the straitjacket that every so-called serious composer had to put on if they wanted to be considered serious. But at the same time, as conductor at the New York Philharmonic, he felt very strongly about advocating for new music and contemporary composers. He saw to it that the Philharmonic would commission works. He would present new works every chance he got, even though they were all 12-tone. Something he liked to do in general was going out before the performance and talking to the audience about the piece he was about to play. Nowadays conductors do it all the time, but back then it was considered very “not the usual thing that we do,” and people were sort of taken aback. But he would find some palatable user-friendly context to put these pieces into so that his subscription audiences could make head or tail of them. It was a tough assignment. 

EM: But a very smart thing to do. 

JB: It’s what he felt he had to do. I think he was doing it for himself, too. He had his own degree of resistance to a lot of this music and was trying as hard as he could to make sense of it for himself as well as for his audiences. 

EM: I’ve always felt that your father lived five lifetimes in one. Can you relate to that? 

JB: Yes! I think that’s true. For one thing, he was such a terrible insomniac. It’s just amazing how much you could get done if you never sleep. Every day is twice as long, right? The upside of it was that he got so much done. The downside was, it’s torture not to be able to sleep. That was part of what exacerbated his dependency on sleeping pills, which in turn often made him dependent on amphetamines because he had to cancel out the sleeping pills if he had to get up early and go to rehearsal. He was on that seesaw, as were so many people in those years. Doctors would give you sleeping pills without thinking twice, and they would give you uppers. So many people in the arts suffered from being on that rollercoaster. We lost a lot of them as a result. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis. Bob Fosse, Judy Garland. It was that era. The good news is that my dad was able to keep going and not get snowed under by it all and still perform at an incredibly high level. He had a pretty strong constitution. A man with a motor, my mother used to say. If you have that motor, it gets you through a lot. 

EM: The Energizer Bunny. 

JB: He was that. The last guy standing at the party. Spent the whole day rehearsing, and, “Now let’s all go out and see an opera and eat dinner and stay up till 4 in the morning.” 

EM: It certainly took its toll on him, but it left us with an incredible legacy. 

JB: It did. If he’d taken better care of himself, maybe he would have lived to 95. 

EM: His mother almost did.

JB: Maybe he would have, too, if he hadn’t smoked and all the rest. Still, it’s amazing how much he managed to cram into 72 years. 

EM: He did. It feels like 5 lifetimes.

JB: I think you’re right. 

EM: How long was Famous Father Girl in the planning stages before you started the actual writing process? 

JB: I’d been thinking all my life about writing some kind of a memoir, writing about myself in journals since I was very young. One of my earliest journals begins, “Dear Jamie Grownup.” So I already knew I was my own best reader. I had this sense that one day I would go back and read all these volumes and try to think of something to do with them. Then—this September, it would have been 3 years ago—I visited a friend who ultimately became my literary agent, Michael Carlisle. We were talking about my dad’s centennial, and he said, “Well, you know, if you write a memoir and key it into your dad and it comes out during the centennial year, you’re gonna sell a book.” Totally pragmatic piece of advice. I realized, oh my God, he’s right. This is it. It was like he shot me out a cannon. I literally went home and started writing that afternoon. That’s how that went. You know how it is, you’ve written books. 

EM: Indeed! In your book, you mention a classmate in second grade who had designated you as “famous father girl.” Why did you decide to use that for your book title? 

JB: The reason I like it is that it’s just a little rude. Like a poke in the eye. And it’s alliterative, which I like. That’s just a lucky accident. But the other reason is that it makes the book be not pretending to be anything it isn’t. It’s like, okay, I grew up as the daughter of a celebrity and now I’m going to tell you about it. If I told you it was just about my own life you would be annoyed that I was beating around the bush about it. I just wanted to put it right out there and defuse any sort of misapprehension of what the book was about. It is literally about what happens when you grow up the daughter of a famous person. I just didn’t want to make any bones about it, to be coy about it. 

EM: It’s certainly attention-grabbing. And I love the cover image. Your dad was probably the most photographed musician of the 20th century— 

JB: [Laughs] Probably. 

EM: Among the thousands of photos of him that must exist, how did you choose that particular image? 

JB: Well, it just says it all. I remember when it was taken because the photographer asked me to sit on the podium next to my father during his rehearsal. It was not a thing I was in the habit of doing. But the photographer thought it would be a cute photo. I think he was photographing for Columbia Records, they’re the ones that have that photograph in their archives. So this photograph tells you everything you need to know. Who my dad was, what he did, and where I was while he was doing it, which was right next to him. 

EM: You also mentioned that you, Alexander and Nina became “the ongoing guinea pigs for Daddy’s Young People’s Concert ideas.” How must that have felt? 

JB: My father never stopped teaching. Never stopped telling us about stuff. Certainly when it came to music. As a result of doing that, a lot of these—I almost hesitate to call them conversations; they were mainly lectures—a lot of his ideas for Young People’s Concerts would have come out of those exchanges. For example, we were all in the car together, listening to the Pop stations as we often did—my dad liked Pop music too, and liked to keep up with what was going on. He would turn on the radio and say, “Let’s catch up! What’s the Top 10 this week?” We were listening to You Really Got Me by The Kinks, a really good song from the 60s we all loved. He was bopping along and said, “Hey, you know, this song is in the Mixolydian mode. You know what a mode is?” We did not. So of course he proceeded to tell us about modes right there in the car. Not very long after that, guess what the next Young People’s Concert topic was about?

Photo, Harper Collins
 EM: Mixolydian modes. 

JB: Yes! And when he got to the Mixolydian mode, he went to the piano and played and sang You Really Got Me, by The Kinks. The whole audience loved that a lot. 

EM: Remember at Tanglewood when he used to give us rides in his car? It was the same thing. 

JB: There you go. 

EM: He would be teaching us all about poetry and nature, quoting Thoreau, with one hand on the steering wheel. 

JB: At least he had one hand on the steering wheel! [Laughs.] 

Next, Part 2: Reminding the world who Leonard Bernstein was

Jamie Bernstein’s Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein releases on June 12 


Photo credits: Steve Sherman, Harper Collins
Erica Miner can be reached at: