brush
with greatness

   Leonard Bernstein yelled at me
 

 

 
 

Well not me in particular, but it felt like it. In March 1984, I was a violist in the Portland Youth Philharmonic on tour in NYC. By coincidence, the New York Philharmonic was celebrating its 60th year of Young People's Concerts and we were celebrating the PYP's 60th anniversary. Our organization had hooked up with theirs. The result: Lenny himself, NYP maestro emeritus, noted composer ("I feel pretty!" er, uh, sorry...), and black turtle-necked darling of der Berliner Philharmoniker, would take up the baton and lead the combined forces of the PYP and the NYP in an epic performance of Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet Fantasy.  

At the beginning of the rehearsal in Avery Fisher Hall, Bernstein doffed what I believe was a cape, ascended the podium, and then did the unthinkable. He took our conductor's (maestro Jacob Avshalomov) head in his hands and kissed his forehead as you might a child's. I was stunned. Mr. A is a top class conductor, musical educator and composer, not to mention the fact that he probably had about 8 years on Bernstein. (When Mr. A was at Columbia University, he among a group of others had assisted Bernstein with a last minute, all night transcription emergency.) Maybe that was just Lenny's way. Yikes!  

Little did we know, but earlier that morning Bernstein had laid into the NYP pretty good. Now it was our turn.  

After shaping the phrasing of the opening woodwind section closer to what he was looking for, he proceeded to the body of the piece. Romeo & Juliet is loaded with fast sixteenth note runs up and down the fingerboard for the string instruments. It's hard, exacting work.  

"Stop!" He glared at all of us on stage right - the violas, the cellos and the bass - but he was looking towards the back where I was sitting, and for a moment, just a moment, I felt his eyes drill through me. I was petrified. He pointed at our sections to play the last passage of sixteenth notes at a tempo you wouldn't believe. We played it again. We (and when I say we, I mean us Youth guys) were pretty good, but this guy was used to perfect. He rode us pretty hard for about 45 minutes, until it was time for him to rehearse other material with the big boys (and girls) alone.  

I was kinda worried.

 

The stage of Avery Fisher Hall had to be extended into the first several rows of seats to accomodate the combined 200 piece orchestra. The NY Times thought the first half of the concert was a little uneven, and I would have to agree, but when the orchestras merged for the Tchaikovsky, the result was extraordinary. Bernstein wasn't holding anything back in a piece which he clearly loved. He beat time in a mystical circular fashion as if stirring magical energies into a froth.  

He drove hard in the development section which sent us racing up and down the sixteenth notes. In the final section after the lovers die, he pushed then relaxed both the tempo and dynamics within phrases that created a tension and a sense of loss. Romeo and Juliet is not an inherently brilliant composition. It can be boring and busy. But infused with fire and passion, it can take you on a ride. Dancing, waving the baton, jumping and then wielding the baton with two hands like a staff of power he drew out of us, this 200 piece symphonic instrument, a breath-takingly dramatic performance. I'll never ever forget it. 

 

Epilogue...  

Not too many years later, Bernstein died. When I heard it on the news, it made me pause. I had made a point not to join the crowd trying to get his autograph or shake his hand after the rehearsal. Which makes it even more odd, that of my few brushes with greatness, the one whom I felt the most compelling connection to is the one I technically never even met. 

 
 

next brush: I was not interviewed by David Letterman

 

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