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Bernstein upholds her father’s music legacy

Justice Editor

Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 14:04

Jamie Bernstein has vivid memories of tagging along with her father, Leonard Bernstein, to his Young People’s Concerts, at which he would conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and explain various musical topics to his audience. She and her brother Alexander would run through Philharmonic Hall, unsupervised, while her father ran through dress rehearsals, camera rehearsals and script meetings before filming the concert for the public, which was then broadcast on CBS.

Bernstein was born and raised in New York City, the eldest of three children to Felicia Cohn Montealegre and Leonard Bernstein. She has fond memories from her childhood and the early days of her parents’ marriage. “The house was always full of people. Our mother Felicia Cohn Montealegre, who came from South America—she had a wonderful sense of style and a sense of warmth with people, and so she made our house such an attractive, comfortable, lovely place to hang out and every- body always came to our house and there were so many people among our parents’ friends,” she said. Among those friends were musicians, artists and writers who filled their house with music, singing and games. The adults that surrounded Bernstein’s environment when she was a child made Bernstein believe that “all grown-ups did was have fun—we couldn’t wait to be grown-ups,” she said.

Aside from keeping her father company during the Young People’s Concerts, she also enjoyed going on tour with him to places in Europe, Israel and the United States.

Narrating concerts entails speaking about either the composer, music or elements of the music performed by an orchestra. Hearing her father narrate and put together the Young People’s Concerts would help Bernstein later in life, more than she could know at the time. About 15 years ago, her family created a concert similar to the ones Leonard Bernstein developed. This concert, however, would focus on Jamie’s father’s music instead of the other composers her father’s program focused on.

“I volunteered to write [the concert] myself because I thought it was such a great idea, but I’d never done anything like that in my life. But I
sure had been to a lot of them...so I felt like that maybe by the process of osmosis I would be able to figure out how to write one,” she said.

Because she was not trained to play any instruments, Bernstein joined forces with Michael Barrett, Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductor, to write the script, develop the concert and introduce what they called “The Bernstein Beat” to the world. She has hosted and narrated the concert in places like China, Venezuela, Spain and Cuba.

Bernstein continued narrating concerts about various topics, mostly about her father but also about Aaron Copland, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Igor Stravinsky. First, she researches the topic, then writes the script and then sets out on the road to perform the concert.

“[The job] covers all the things I like to do. I love to find out more about a topic I didn’t know about be- fore—that’s the research part—and I love writing ... so there’s that. And I love performing—getting up and sharing what I’ve learned and my own excitement about my topic to an audience, preferably a young one,” she said.

As she narrates concerts and listens to the various orchestras play her father’s music, she feels a connection to her father. “I feel happy that I found a way to share him with the rest of the world, which is a nice way to give back to him, thank him in a way for everything he gave to me in the course of his life. When I sit on the corner of the stage while they’re playing my dad’s music and I’m in the middle of a concert about him, I always have this great feeling that I’m sort of giving him acknowledgement or giving him a hug back,” she said.

Leonard Bernstein, who was a visiting Music professor at Brandeis from 1951 to 1956, founded the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Arts. Jamie will be hosting one of the events, “Late Night with Leonard Bernstein” this year on Friday, April 26 at 8 p.m. in the Slosberg Music Center. The event, which she describes as “a little tour inside my father’s brain,” will consist of pieces he might have written late at night, while he could not fall asleep.

She explained that her father would write smaller pieces that would sometimes be developed into longer and more complex pieces of music later on.

Bernstein described her father as an “insomniac” and as someone who “had this power motor that he could not shut off. His engine just kept going and going all the time. That was part of why he couldn’t sleep at night. So instead, he would be up all night long by himself and would be composing ... or he would be up all night partying with his friends, roaring around the piano,” she said.

“You get a sense of an ‘inner’ person and an ‘outer’ person. There’s a combination of the interior compositions and also the sorts of pieces he liked to entertain his friends with, not by him necessarily,” she said.

Besides the festival, Bernstein has several other developing projects in the coming weeks and months. She will travel to Venezuela in May to start putting together a concert in Spanish to introduce Aaron Copland’s music to young audiences there. In the summer, she will narrate a concert of her father’s music in Los Angeles, and then begin researching topics for next year’s concerts.

“[My father] himself taught at Brandeis, so he’d be thrilled to know that everything was coming around full circle,” she said.

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