Memories of Bernstein
When the Ulster Orchestra’s new Principal Conductor, JoAnn Falletta, takes to the stage for this year’s opening concert, it will be to some very special memories of one of the composers whose work she will conduct
I am honoured to be a part of the Belfast Festival and thrilled to be presenting a programme of Festival of the Americas. I never had the opportunity to meet George Gershwin and only met Aaron Copland late in his life, but I did have the wonderful chance to study with Leonard Bernstein at the Juilliard School.
One of the greatest privileges of my seven years of study at Juilliard was the opportunity to work with the incomparable man. Bernstein was a legend even during his lifetime. Each of his visits to coach our conducting class generated extraordinary excitement in the entire school and every inch of the rehearsal hall was crowded with students and faculty.
His arrival in Room 319 was palpable — the atmosphere seemed to change, literally crackling with the electricity of his personality. People are often surprised to learn that Bernstein was actually quite small in stature — barely taller than my own 5’4”. His head, however, was enormous — strong, craggy and patrician.
Dressed casually, he immediately put us at ease by his attitude of generosity and support. Bernstein may have had a reputation for being more outspokenly honest than kind, but with young conductors he seemed to possess a patience, empathy and affection.
He would leap on the podium beside us to illustrate a musical point, embracing us when we seemed to connect with his concept. Singing, dancing, miming, he would stop at nothing to try to convey his passion for the music we were studying. Bernstein almost never talked about technique, clarity or precision — rather, he tried to get us to immerse ourselves in the inner meaning of the music.
I remember one particular session in which we tackled the challenge of Bizet’s opera Carmen. Not interested in beat patterns or baton signals, Bernstein instead spoke of the machismo of the toreador, the obsessive love of Don Jose, the sensuality of the doomed Carmen. He conjured up for us and the musicians in the orchestra the stifling heat of the Spanish sun, the blood and gore of the bullring, the dark and pulsating passions running through every note of the score. I have never conducted Carmen since without being swept away into the searing and dramatic world he created for us.
The end of each session always held a special magic. Bernstein himself would conduct our orchestra in a reading of a Mahler symphony. My four colleagues and I would watch in awe as he took our recalcitrant orchestra — who could somehow never seem to play well for us — on an impassioned journey into his turbulent world.
Bernstein was not noted for clarity. Yet our orchestra — who would often have trouble following our clearest attempts at precision — seemed to have no difficulty in understanding him. It was as if the sheer force of his musical personality took hold of each musician and guided them through an odyssey of soaring emotion.
The session would continue well past the allotted time, but no one seemed to notice, ignoring classes and appointments, suspended in Bernstein’s world of drama, pathos and lyricism. At the conclusion, all of us — conductors, orchestra musicians and audience — seemed stunned.
For a man in constant demand, he still found the time to nudge us forward, to scold and encourage and inspire us. Most of all, he showed us that the true meaning of music lay not in the veneer of technical perfection, but in the beating heart of the deepest human emotion.
- Festival of the Americas, October 14, 7.45pm, Waterfront Hall