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Passages of Great Men: Leonard Bernstein

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In response to one of my posts about Leonard Bernstein, a friend was moved to share the poignancy of attending a concert in Israel when his death was announced.  It led me to think about the asteroidal impact of the passage of certain souls: why some are so unanimously loved and leave such big holes on the terrain where they used to dance.  There are many similar phenomenons around artists, humanitarians, visionaries whose death causes tumultuous reverberations around the world.  Upon closer inspection, as those lives are examined, it is not so difficult to understand why. 

In this week-long series, Leonard Bernstein will be the first focus of several who erupted into a supernova on the world stage.  These bright lights brought with them a powerful message of some kind.  Perhaps it was one of peace, of childlike exuberance and joy, of the gift of music, of selflessness.  Perhaps this soul inspired many to follow their bliss, elevated the collective consciousness, became a systems buster or eased pain by bringing laughter into the midst of an existence which often seems a great tragicomedy. 

The impact upon the survived when a great soul leaves can be a poignant reflection on their life but also a unique opportunity to examine what kind of legacy we will leave as individuals.  Leonard Bernstein was a genius who lived joyfully (at least on the outside if not riddled with inner angst), triumphantly, generously and did so with great verve and panache.  Reverberations of his presence here abound.  Some remembrances below:

“I was playing junky music in Hollywood. I was about to give it all up and go into real estate when he hired me over the phone to play in the New York City Symphony. Years later I told him that if it hadn’t been for that, I’d be a multi-millionaire, just like my prospective real estate partner was. And he said, “But Ralph, look at how you enjoyed yourself.” And Lenny always enjoyed himself. He loved the enthusiasm of young people; that’s why he never lost his own. And when he talked, people related to him immediately, as if their father, brother, or uncle were talking to them — he could talk to prime ministers and scientists and rap groups, to anybody who was talented. He loved talent of any kind. He was always a paradox. At one moment you’d say, ‘How could he say that?’ or, ‘How could he do that?,’ and the next moment he’d do something that would make you love him. You couldn’t depend on what he was going to do next, even when he was conducting. He would say he had ‘reexamined’ Tchaikovsky or Mahler, and he had, and it would be different.”  — Ralph Gomberg, former principal oboe of the Boston Symphony

“I am as amazed today as I was when I first entered music at his output, and at the range of things that he has done — we need more like him. But that isn’t so easy; it’s like following Wagner as a composer — everything was on such an immense scale that it becomes really daunting to find your own way. A whole generation has stood in his shadow because it was impossible to do anything like that. There were no barriers for him, and he didn’t set any up for himself. I love something he said in an interview once. The writer asked him what he thought of when he was conducting, and Bernstein said, “If I acted out what I was thinking on Seventh Avenue, I could get myself arrested!’ ” — Yo-Yo Ma, American cellist

“When the committee assembled there was a lot of esoteric talk, as you can imagine, and the talk came round to Mozart, and they were practically stripping him of flesh and blood. Lenny had had a few glasses of wine, and finally he said, “Oh, for God’s sake, Mozart was a Broadway composer. If that bitch of a soprano couldn’t hit a high E-flat, he’d just give her another note.” He could combine that raw earthiness with the celestial heavens, and that doesn’t come along every day.” — Luise Vosgerchian, pianist/Harvard music student

“There’s a Hebrew phrase that makes me think of my father: “Torah Lishmah” And it means, loosely translated, a raging thirst for knowledge and my father had it about almost everything. He just could not absorb enough information on the things that interested him: not just music but also Shakespeare, the Renaissance, world religions, Lewis Carroll, biology, Russian literature, the two World Wars, astrophysics, French drama — and any places where these topics overlap. His brain was on fire with curiosity. And what he loved most was to communicate his excitement to others. People often say that Leonard Bernstein was a born teacher, but actually it’s more accurate to say that he was a born student who just couldn’t wait to share what he learned. In his whole life, he never stopped studying. ”  — Jamie Bernstein, daughter

“I was always delighted when he would stop a rehearsal and say “must I tell you the story of this Haydn Symphony?” only to have 70 musicians magically turn into 4 year olds with that sparkle of anticipation in their eyes that says “yes, please tell us that story!” — Marin Alsop, American conductor & violinist

“While his music finds its spiritual home in his world view, his music speaks with a New York accent, even though he was born in Massachusetts. His love affair with Europe and his sensitivity to his Russian and Jewish roots are never far from his lyrical expressivity, with its fragile sense of optimism, its loneliness, its humor and its demand for acceptance. All of this is wrapped in the rhythmic propulsion of a great American urban landscape. He has left us an aural image of his time and place and, at the same time, an eternal voice of humanity.” — John Mauceri, Director of Hollywood Bowl Orchestra

“Naively, he wanted the whole world to love itself into one big happy family, and he took it as a personal affront when the world refused to comply. He maintained unflinching optimism and religious trust in the ultimate improvability of man, despite all the hard evidence to the contrary. Lenny was in love with love. Helping young talent and his less celebrated, less lucky contemporaries, some of whom responded to his kindnesses with rank envy and disloyalty, which typically, Lenny was quick to ignore or forgive.” — Burton Bernstein, brother

“I will never forget one concert – mid-October 1990, my family has arrived in Israel from what was still USSR exactly two weeks before that. It’s the first concert of Israel Philharmonic that I am attending. Isaac Stern is the soloist. Just as the concert is about to begin, the executive director comes on stage and announces that Leonard Bernstein has just passed away… I have never seen, before or after, over two thousand people weep. In Israel he was loved beyond description, and is still missed a lot…”  —  Vadim Gluzman, Israeli violinist

I am reminded of an ancient sanskrit quote which I found in the book, “Who Will Cry When You Die” by Robin Sharma. It is full of wisdom and reminders about the dangers of losing connection with ourselves and others in our modern world. 

“When you were born, you cried while the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die the world cries while you rejoice.” — ancient Sanskrit quote 

Lenny certainly passed that test.  


One response »

  1. To love the talent of another and to have what it takes to draw out from that one even greater depths of genius is a brilliant trait of character.

    The coupling of — one, pouring themselves into another who is willing and gifted, resulting in what coud never be achieved by either independently, is a beautiful process. (Not to mention the product)

    1) “He loved the enthusiasm of young people; that’s why he never lost his own.” -Ralph Gomberg

    2) Instead of Bernstein being a natural born teacher, “…it’s more accurate to say that he was a born student who just couldn’t wait to share what he had learned” – Jamie Bernsein

    I pray that my enthusiasm for “childlike exuberance” keeps my own in tact; even until the day this body is laid to rest.

    I also hope that my eagerness to learn of my own interests and to share those things that I find to be uncontainable, inspires and encourages another.

    —————————————————————– -Thank-You


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