Leonard Bernstein and JoAnn Falletta, mid '80s
This year’s Virginia Arts Festival will once again bring into town a wide variety of world-class artists. But one of the biggest highlights will be our own Virginia Symphony’s tribute to Leonard Bernstein, who would have turned 100 this year. The Symphony’s music director, JoAnn Falletta, studied under Bernstein and got to know him personally. Recently I sat down with her to talk about Bernstein’s enormous impact on American culture.
Can you start by sharing some memories of studying under Leonard Bernstein?
When I was at Juilliard in the ’80s he would come and give us master classes, and each time the school sort of came to a standstill. We had our large rehearsal room, and on those days, everyone would come—not only the musicians; the actors would come, the dancers would come; the faculty. Everyone just wanted to see him, to be in his presence—and it was electrifying, I have to say. The presence he had was unbelievable. He wouldn’t walk in like a king; he’d just walk in with his little cigarette holder, and everyone focused on him.
For some reason he was always very gentle with us. And the amazing thing is, he would never talk about technique. All that mattered to him was what the music meant emotionally. I remember we were working on Carmen, and I think we were worried about whether the tempo was too fast—and he said, ‘Why are you worried about these details? Just think about where you are: You’re in the middle of a bullring, and the sun in Seville is beating down on you, and the smell of blood is all around you. And people are screaming—that’s what you should be thinking about: the danger and this hopeless lust and attraction. It was all about emotion and humanity.’
Then he would conduct our orchestra. The orchestra was very difficult with us. They were all students, and they didn’t really want to be there for us, so they would give us a hard time. But he would get up on that podium and give some sort of waft [with his arms], and the whole orchestra would play. It was almost as if he was beaming his feeling about the music directly to them. It was unbelievable to see—those people who had such difficulty playing with us played perfectly for him. I realized then that the communication has to go from here [points to her heart] to there. We just reveled in that.
Beyond that, when I was going to school the U.S. didn’t really have much of a culture of its own [in terms of approaches to classical music]. We always felt, well we’re only Americans so what do we know about Brahms, for example. So we studied the great German recordings and read what German writers said about music. That was the ultimate. But he was an American who went all over the world and was acclaimed. So for us it meant that somehow we could come of age as a country, and there was hope for all of us musicians. Bernstein went to Europe and taught them something. I mean, the idea that he was also Jewish standing in front of the Vienna Philharmonic, which has a history of anti-Semitism—and they listened to him. It was just amazing to think of his power to change things.
Yes, he was a real ambassador—and a great teacher. I remember his television series where he would break down pieces for the viewers.
Right. Amazing. He never spoke down to young people. He always spoke in an elevated way on an elevated subject but in a way that was at the same time humorous, revealing, understandable. I don’t think anyone else has had that gift.
You say that he was very gentle with you and your fellow students. What was his reputation with musicians?
He could be very difficult—very demanding. He was sometimes tough on other composers. He didn’t have an easy time in New York. He was a very physically expressive conductor at a time when that wasn’t the prevailing style. And I think he spent most of his time in New York with The New York Times writing terrible reviews. The crowds were always there screaming for him, but the critics said, no. But I think what hurt him most was that he was writing music at a time when the vanguard felt you had to write very esoteric, very indecipherable music—cerebral music, and if the public couldn’t understand it that was their problem. Bernstein never wrote like that. He wrote music for people. I mean obviously West Side Story—he was severely criticized for that—how can you write pop music? Well, it’s not pop; it’s the most classic music we have.
But he also took that approach when he wrote music that was more in the classical tradition. I remember when he took time off to write, ostensibly, music in this new style. The result of it was Chichester Psalms, which was not at all in the new style. It was as if after taking time off he said, you know, this is who I am. Chichester Psalms is one of the most moving pieces but written in a way that is accessible. It’s beautiful and powerful. It’s not easy listening, but it’s communicative.
He was quite outspoken politically, too, as I recall.
At dinner parties—and by the way I never saw him eat very much; he seemed to live on Scotch and cigarettes—he didn’t like to talk about music. I think he thought it would be pompous. He liked to talk about politics.
He was so controversial. When Jackie Kennedy asked him to write a piece for the opening of the Kennedy Center—because he and the Kennedys were very close friends—he wrote his Mass. This was at the time when the Vietnam War was in full fury, and he wrote a piece that was really shocking to the public. It’s a mass but it’s completely irreverent: the priest has lost his faith and is trying to find his way, and the world is falling apart. It was boycotted. Nixon wouldn’t go, and even Jackie Kennedy didn’t go to the premiere because just going would have been seen as an acceptance of everything Bernstein. Everyone was saying, ‘This is a Communist piece or this is a heretical piece—or anti-American.’ So to avoid a storm of disapproval she didn’t go. But he never backed down.
You mentioned Chichester Psalms, which is on the program for Bernstein at 100. Can you talk a little more about that piece?
He was very proud of his Jewish heritage and made no bones about that, so the idea of combining Hebrew and English was so beautiful to him. And then the idea that it was written for a Christian Cathedral in England—somehow that made sense to him, this bringing people together. The piece goes through some rough things—it’s not all sweetness and light. But it’s a kind of acceptance of the presence of God. I think it’s obvious that he believed in God, very strongly, even in an age where a lot of people were questioning that. So the piece is very powerful. We’re doing it with the Virginia Chorale. It’s a very difficult piece to perform, but it’s so beautiful in that sort of yearning, Romantic way that Bernstein was able to capture.
Would you walk me through the rest of the program?
We want to show different sides of Bernstein: his religious music; his jazz, with Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. His classical with one of my favorite pieces, the Serenade. The full title is sort of off-putting: Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. But it’s the most fun piece of music because Plato’s Symposium is a dinner party with the conversation focusing on the meaning of love. And talk about tone painting—I mean it’s unbelievable the way in which he captures their ideas about what love is, even though there are no words in the piece. It shows how Bernstein could look at something like the Symposium and see the humor in it and the humanity.
And you’re opening, I noticed, with Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.
Yes. You know, Bernstein really had to hide his interest in writing for Broadway until his great mentor Serge Koussevitzky died because Koussevitzky was totally against writing for the theater. It was a time when even if you were a movie composer people looked down on you. The thinking was, if you’re a classical composer that’s all you do. But after Koussevitzky died, Bernstein said, OK, now I can be who I am—thankfully because I don’t think there’s a more beautiful musical than West Side Story, in part because it’s a social commentary. So, for example, when the orchestra plays the mambo you can feel the energy and the hostility between the gangs. It’s almost like a war dance—it almost pins you back in your seat when you hear it.
I really think he’s the greatest American musician who ever lived—I mean, how many people could do what he did: he was a great pianist, great composer, great conductor and a great teacher. He had an amazing mind. And he was a great ambassador for our country. There’s no single citizen who’s done more for American music.
Bernstein at 100 will be performed April 13 at Ferguson Center for the Arts and April 14 at Chrysler Hall. For tickets and more information visit VaFest.org. Visit here for more highlights from the Virginia Arts Festival's upcoming season.