August 24, 2018
Bernstein wasn’t only a maverick maestro – he brought classical music to a whole new generation with his Young People’s concerts. But have they stood the test of time?
Learning from Leonard Bernstein: our cheeky Proms love letter to a musical pioneer
How could anyone step into the shoes of Leonard Bernstein?
I saw those shoes once, backstage at London’s Royal Festiva London in September 1988. It wasn’t his concert, he hadn’t conducted, no one had played his music – but suddenly there he was, a fluttering of chevaliers around him, tiny, almost like an elf. And it was the shoes that caught my eye.
Cowboy boots, with platform heels and arabesques of little glittering studs up the side, and at the top the ends of his denim trousers foaming out like a cappuccino. I remember thinking: how do you get denim to do that?
Further up was the flying-ace jacket with a fluffy lamb collar, and a white silk dress-scarf like someone from a Noël Coward play, and the famous almost rockabilly go-faster hair.
And in the midst of the peacockery, that smiling, ravaged but still beautiful face, and those giant piercing eyes, which seemed to suck into the vast and hungry whirlpool of his curiosity everyone standing there and the whole grubby room around him.
That is my memory, though I know memory plays tricks. But I don’t think I have ever seen such energy radiating from a human being.
In a way, our special Prom this Sunday, The Sound of an Orchestra (the title borrowed from Bernstein), is a cheeky love letter to that fleeting moment 30 years ago.
Last autumn, when we started planning this Prom, we considered restaging one of the original Young People’s Concerts. That appealed to me – several years ago I had the luck to spend a whole day in the Bernstein Archive in the Library of Congress and in one tumbled box I found notes and sketches for several of those pioneering programmes, and saw that everything he did – every casual, friendly improvisation, every joke – was tightly scripted and carefully thought out. He was a control freak masquerading as Till Eulenspiegel. And such a great performer that we, believed in his spontaneity.
But the obvious soon became clear: recreation would be pointless.
When you look at what he says in some of those old shows, you see that, fascinating though he always was, his language belongs to another age, the 1950s and 60s, the cold war and Camelot: “It sounds American, smells American, makes you feel American …”

And those original audiences: teenage girls in grownup makeup, hairdos and pillbox hats like Jackie O; and boys dressed like wannabe lawyers and businessmen, with ties, pressed suits and slicked-back hair.
And sometimes, cold on the page, his words can be astonishingly banal. “Hello again. It’s been much too long, I think six weeks, since we’ve seen each other. I’ve missed you. Today we’re going to talk about a part of music that’s really exciting and really fun – orchestration.” But when you hear him delivering these sentences with magical intensity, they don’t sound banal. They make you want to love him and love the music.
It’s been fascinating, in this centenary year of retrospective, to look back on all this Bernsteinian abundance: the ridiculous range of his music, popular and serious, the lectures and educational programmes, the books and interviews, and the hundreds of recordings, some sound only, but an astonishing number on film.
That power and energy I glimpsed so vividly 30 years ago is everywhere. But it is also a reminder of something else, of the dark undertow of snarky scepticism that pursued him in his life, especially from the snobbier end of the classical music spectrum and often delivered with an antisemitic twang. Too much of his work was somehow unfinished, undiscriminating, blurring artistic distinctions that should not be blurred. Leonard Bernstein was just not good taste. My dear, have you HEARD the Mass?
He was, and this was very much part of the problem, a celebrity from the first age of television. And his mother was on to that from the day his career was launched, when, on 14 November 1943, he stepped at one day’s notice into the shoes of Bruno Walter to conduct the New York Philharmonic.
“Lenny dear, please don’t tell reporters of your personal views. It’s very bad taste. Just a little advice from your mother and I’m sure it will not harm you.”
But how quickly she deflects the pain: “Good luck to you, honey, and success. We’ll be thrilled to hear you on the radio on Sunday. I am sure most of the Jews in the country will be listening to you, so do your best, dear.”
It’s true that a lot of his later music does have a curiously unfinished quality, even a sloppiness. And then there are the unrealised but endlessly worked-on projects, such as his White House musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Maybe that project would have come to something had he lived to see that address’s current inhabitant.)
And the later performances can be downright weird, like an infamously grotesque Pathétique Symphony that slows the last movement down so much it sounds like Dead Man Walking. I remember at the time being revolted, but with the passing of the years it’s something quite different that strikes me. Not only Bernstein’s blazing energy, but his incredible openness. His unfailing daring. His reckless, almost childlike confidence that the world was an oyster open for delectation.
Maybe that’s what I really saw in the face of that diminutive figure 30 years ago. It’s a quality summed up in one of my favourite pieces of his, a tiny and eye-poppingly smutty little jukebox song, Big Stuff, composed (both words and music) for Billie Holiday, as an opener for Fancy Free, his 1944 ballet about three boys – sailors, of course – out on the town:
So you go
Down to the shore, kid stuff.
Don’t you know
There’s honey in store for you, big stuff?
Let’s take a ride in my gravy train!
The door’s open wide,
Come in from out of the rain!

Learning from Leonard Bernstein: our cheeky Proms love letter to a musical pioneer
In Jonathan Cott’s magical memoir Dinner With Lenny, there’s a delicious moment when Bernstein, ever the teacher, tells the young interviewer: “Honey child, the artifice of art is knowing how to steal classy!”
And how classy Bernstein’s own thefts were. In West Side Story alone he steals from Schumann at his purest and most intimate, from late Beethoven, from the closing bars of Wagner’s Ring (itself the story of a classy theft!).
The rest of us can’t aim to thieve in quite this way. But in our Proms show, the very title comes from a Young People’s Concert of 1965, and we’ve drawn hints and suggestions from several others including What is Orchestration? (1958) and his famous Omnibus programme, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony of 1954, with its pioneering exploration of Beethoven’s journey from his original sketches to the final orchestral masterpiece.
And we’ve taken orchestral examples from Bernstein’s own music and from composers and works he loved and championed, including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Ives, Debussy, Ravel and countless others. And from time to time we even hear his voice, recorded over several decades and characteristically urging all of us to listen with more openness, more passion and more attention.
Who knows what Bernstein would have thought of all of this fun? But I hope it might have given him pleasure. It’s not a show that would have existed without his inspiration. And it’s difficult to imagine this show taking place anywhere else.
The Sound of an Orchestra, with creative direction by Gerard McBurney with Joshua Weilerstein conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is at the Royal Albert Hall on 26 August at 7.30pm.
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