LEONARD BERN­STEIN A LIFE IN TUNE WITH IS­RAEL

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL FREED­LAND

WHETHER OR not he was the great­est mu­si­cian of his gen­er­a­tion is sub­ject to de­bate. Leonard Bern­stein him­self cer­tainly thought he was. Was he one of the great­est Jewish mu­si­cians of the 20th cen­tury? No doubt what­so­ever. In an age that pro­duced an Ar­tur Ru­bin­stein, an Isaac Stern, to say noth­ing of an Itzhak Perl­man and a Daniel Baren­boim, Leonard Bern­stein was un­com­pro­mis­ing in two things — his mu­sic and his Jewish­ness.

With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Perl­man, who loves Jewish mu­sic, no other fig­ure who stood on the podium or sat at the pi­ano key­board or at his desk writ­ing some of the most mem­o­rable mu­sic of his time, let the world know he was not just a mu­si­cian and a Jew but a Zion­ist from his toes to ev­ery one of his sil­very hairs.

It came out in his broad­cast lec­tures, which were both ed­u­ca­tional and won­der­fully en­ter­tain­ing. Whether it was con­duct­ing the Is­rael Phil­har­monic or en­ter­tain­ing troops in the Six-Day War, there was al­ways, metaphor­i­cally, a blue and white flag flut­ter­ing be­hind him. When he wrote his Kad­dish sym­phony it was easy to imag­ine him stand­ing in shul.

Other pi­anist-mu­si­cians I have known, like the bril­liant An­dre Previn, with whom I spent a good deal of time writ­ing his bi­og­ra­phy, have al­lowed their Jewish­ness to slide. “It is not a code I fol­low,” he told me once — and then re­called how he had once slapped the older con­duc­tor on the back, say­ing: “Hi, Jew­boy! Lenny wasn’t of­fended, but clearly if a non-Jew had said it, he surely would have been.

Bern­stein’s death 25 years ago this month was mourned not just by clas­si­cal mu­sic lovers, but also by peo­ple who re­ally didn’t know much about mu­sic, but whis­tled and hummed

Tonight and ev­ery other tune they could re­mem­ber from West Side Story or one of his other mu­si­cal shows like Won­der­ful Town.

Se­cretly, I al­ways thought of Bern­stein as the sec­ond com­ing of Ge­orge Gersh­win, but he was more than the sec­ond any­thing. Any­one who could pro­duce both New York, New York (not the Si­na­tra hit, but the big num­ber from On The Town, which be­came the first Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cal shot on lo­ca­tion) and the Chich­ester Psalms, with its orig­i­nal He­brew sung by a choir, was plainly ex­cep­tional.

I have a per­sonal rea­son to think af­fec­tion­ately of this towering fig­ure in Jewish life. He liked my book which I wrote in the 1980s, even to the ex­tent of al­low­ing a pho­tog­ra­pher from the Mail on Sun­day mag­a­zine to snap him read­ing it. But it was not an easy jour­ney. I in­ter­viewed him for the To­day pro­gramme on Ra­dio 4 and we, shall we say, didn’t ex­actly hit it off at that first meet­ing. “Mr Bern­steen,” I be­gan (the rea­son I now spell it that way will be­come im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent.) “Bern­steen!” he pos­i­tively thun­dered. “Bern­steen! It’s Bern­styne! Mr Freed- land, Bern­styne!” It was to get worse. “You are some­thing of a showman, Mr Bern­stein aren’t you?” I dared to ask. “A showman! A showman!” I might just as eas­ily have called him a se­rial mur­derer at that mo­ment. “I’m a mu­si­cian, Mr Freed­land. A mu­si­cian.”

Could I ever have doubted that? But this was the con­duc­tor who seemed to dance when he had a ba­ton in his hand. He would jump and he would al­most fall to his knees. And when he fin­ished, he wouldn’t just in­vite the au­di­ence to clap his orches­tra mem­bers, he would go to each player and kiss them. I can re­mem­ber the Proms con­cert at the Al­bert Hall when he con­ducted Mahler’s Fourth Sym­phony — Mahler was not only his favourite com­poser but he was re­garded by many as the fore­most ex­po­nent of his work. He was get­ting quite old and suf­fered from em­phy­sema. There was a fe­male singer for the per­for­mance who not only sounded as beau­ti­ful as a bird on an early spring morn­ing, she looked rav­ish­ing. Study the peo­ple in the hall and you saw that all eyes were on her. For the first few min­utes, that is. Then, watch that au­di­ence again and see that those eyes had switched to the now rather fat, cough­ing Bern­stein. Won­der­ful mu­sic sound­ing even more won­der­ful through his magic touch, yes, but I am not sure that it wasn’t also show­man­ship.

Is there any doubt why I took to him? The fact that he was so proud to be Jewish might have had some­thing to do with it, too.

Not sur­pris­ingly, his up­bring-

ing had been pretty in­flu­en­tial. He talked about his par­ents, Sam and Jen­nie (orig­i­nally Chaya) Bern­stein, from Ukraine— and his aunt Clara — con­stantly in his fa­mous TV lec­tures. He doesn’t seem ever to have ac­knowl­edged that, when he was born in 1918 in the fam­ily home in Lawrence, Mas­sachusetts, he was orig­i­nally called Louis. Nei­ther par­ent liked the name and changed it to Leonard, al­though for­ever af­ter they, and seem­ingly ev­ery­one else, called him Lenny.

He wasn’t to make much of the fact either that his fa­ther was in the beauty prod­ucts busi­ness or that his par­ents stayed mar­ried sim­ply be­cause they thought it was the right and the Jewish thing to do. His brother Bur­ton was to write in the New Yorker that Jen­nie was told by her mother: “When the rabbi speaks, step on Sam’s foot and you will al­ways be the boss.” Jen­nie her­self would say, “how wrong could my mother be!” Wrong or not, the one thing they agreed upon was the pride they had in their el­dest son.

When Lenny made his un­ex­pected de­but at Carnegie Hall in 1943 — the con­duc­tor Bruno Wal­ter hav­ing been taken ill — Bern­stein, the un­der­study took over for an af­ter­noon con­cert, which re­ceived plau­dits from the stunned New York mu­sic crit­ics that took him on his way to the top — the first call he made was to his par­ents in Lawrence.

Sam’s one-word re­tort was in Yid­dish: “Ge­valt!”

When Lenny mar­ried his wife, the Costa Rica-born Catholic ac­tress Feli­cia Cohn Mon­teale­gre, she agreed to con­vert to Ju­daism, in­form­ing the Ortho­dox rabbi who per­formed the cer­e­mony un­der the chu­pah that her great grand­fa­ther had been a rabbi, a Re­form rabbi.

It didn’t stop Sam com­plain­ing that she was a “shiksa”. But the Bern­steins even­tu­ally took to her and to the three grand­chil­dren — two girls and a boy — whom the cou­ple gave them.

Plainly, Lenny thought as a Jew — and one who had a pro­found knowl­edge of Ju­daism and Jewish cul­ture.

If there was an­other re­li­gion in his life it was prob­a­bly a de­ity called Serge Kous­se­vitzky, who was born Jewish but drifted away. The Rus­sian­born con­duc­tor was his idol.

He had a rit­ual that Bern­stein adopted and car­ried out be­fore each con­cert — first, the shower and then the don­ning of a crisp, new, white shirt and a newly pressed tail­coat.

The al­ways im­mac­u­lately dressed Lenny usu­ally main­tained he was not su­per­sti­tious. The rou­tine, he said, felt to him like the ablu­tions of the High Pri­est be­fore en­ter­ing the Holy of Holies in the Tem­ple on Yom Kip­pur.

For him, his mu­sic it­self was prac­ti­cally holy and this was a way of demon­strat­ing it — while giv­ing it in his mind a to­tally Jewish flavour.

Is­rael was more than just a flavour. It was part of the plasma in his blood that be­gan to stir with the es­tab­lish­ment of the State in 1948.

The birth of Is­rael meant the re­birth of the Pales­tine Sym­phony Orches­tra, now as the Is­rael Phil­har­monic. To him, the men and women play­ing in that orches­tra were as much fight­ers for the in­fant state as those other civil­ians — many of whom, like them, were Holo­caust sur­vivors — who were grab­bing what arms they could to de­fend their coun­try. They fought, he be­lieved, with pi­anos and vi­o­lins and French horns.

He went to con­duct the orches­tra on its home turf when­ever he could, and of­ten on tour in Amer­ica. Im­pre­sar­ios in the Jewish state only had to hear his name to get on the phone to New York and try to set up a Bern­stein sea­son — not easy since he was al­ways booked years in ad­vance. He reg­u­larly per­formed at con­certs in aid of char­i­ties like the Hadas­sah Hospi­tal and, above all, for the Is­raeli troops. For some rea­son, the sol­diers al­ways de­manded Mozart, al­though he never worked out why.

Mu­sic was al­ways there, ready to solve prob­lems, big and small. There is a strong case to sug­gest that a cru­cial bat­tle in the War of In­de­pen­dence was partly won by Leonard Bern­stein . He­wa­son­the­p­odium ata­makeshift army base in the Negev, play­ing his Mozart­sym­pho­nyan­da­nen­coreof

Rhap­sody in Blue. Word­had­gotout that this was a mag­nif­i­cent con­cert. One­pla­toon­in­formedan­oth­erand in a mat­ter of min­utes, a col­umn of jeeps and makeshift trucks were pro­cess­ing to­wards the do-it-your­self con­cert hall.

The pa­rade was not to go un­no­ticed by the en­emy. An Egyp­tian spot­ter plane ra­dio-ed to base that an enor­mous com­pany of Is­raelis were about to at­tack their troops near the then iso­lated desert vil­lage of Beer­sheva. Or­ders were im­me­di­ately given to re­treat.

That, of course, was what he never did — re­treat.

‘ Is­rael was part of the plasma of his blood

In­spired: Leonard Bern­stein was openly proud of his her­itage and it shaped much of his work

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

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