Transcript:

Speaker Let's start with.

Speaker That's an interesting story, I think I came to New York as a young kid right out of school, I came from San Francisco where I was a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory, and I managed to find one job in San Francisco, which was as music director of this little known agitprop opera from from the 30s called The Cradle Will Rock.

Speaker And it was by Mark Blitzstein, who I never heard of. And I just answered this little ad on the bulletin board at school and said, I'll see what this is. It actually paid some money. So I was looking for work. I did it in San Francisco and it was kind of a runaway hit. We had to add performances. We got incredibly good notices and I kind of fell in love with the piece. So I ran out of work very quickly. I came to New York and I had friends who had told me, well, you want to be a conductor, you've got to meet Leonard Bernstein. It's the only way. You know, I. I thought that was a little bit much, but I thought, why not? So I found someone who was working for the maestro and through a mutual friend and he said, oh, well, you've got to come to the Philharmonic tomorrow. We're having a we're having a dress rehearsal for the big concert tonight and it's an open rehearsal. So just coming up, leave your name at the stage door. So I went to the stage door of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center and never having been there, actually. So here I am in the big city. And sure enough, there's my name on the list, the guard to go right on in. And I walked up these stairs and I could hear the Philharmonic playing, but I had no idea where the stage was. And I was wandering around in those halls back and forth going, it's theater. And finally I just followed my ears and they led me to this enormous double door. Huge. But I could hear the orchestra on the other side and I gave a little shove. And sure enough, the store creaked open and I slipped in and I was right behind the double bass section of the orchestra on the stage. And so there I am looking at Leonard Bernstein conducting. It was the Enigma Variations.

Speaker And I had had kind of a actually a skeptical view of Mr. Bernstein leading up to that point. I thought, oh, he's that Hollywood guy. And, you know, I was very much a conservatory trained music snob at the at that time. And I I thought, oh, he's so, you know, he's into glamour and Hollywood and film scores and West Side Story. I didn't think he was really a great, serious musician. It took me about ten minutes on that stage and watching him rehearse the Philharmonic and wow, this guy has got it. He's incredible.

Speaker What was he doing, that quartet that he was just conducting this amazingly difficult orchestra and and creating such life in such music out of these guys in a very tricky piece with such a band and freedom and.

Speaker I responded to it immediately and, you know, I had never seen him conduct in person, so this was here, I was maybe 50 feet away. I might have been playing a double bass, you know, and, you know, you know, immediately if you're a musician, if someone's really got it, you know, and this guy was beyond that, it was it was revelatory.

Speaker So I just sat there sheepishly. Finally, they got to a break. And Jimmy Chambers, who was the personnel manager, came over and said, son, you can't stand back here. We have rules against this. And I said, oh, I'm so sorry I got lost. So he said, well, you can go sit out there with all the other people. And it was on my way, I think, back into the house that I, you know, managed to have a few words with the maestro. And I said to him, Hi, my name is Michael Barrett. I'm here from San Francisco and I want to do The Cradle Will Rock in New York City.

Speaker And he was, you know, frozen. He meant what, you know, the cradle will rock. You don't know that piece. Oh, yes, I did. I just did 15 performances of it in in San Francisco. It was a big hit. I think New York's ready for it again. And so he started quizzing me on it right away.

Speaker You know what comes after this line? Who who says this? You know, and and in fact, the next time we met, he made me go to the piano and play this whole thing by heart just to make sure I really knew it. And he said, wow, I can't believe it. You really know this piece. So he said, well, I don't know anything about producing, but he does. And he introduced me to his manager, Harry Crowd. And sure enough, a year and a half later, I think it was after I began studying with the maestro, I was I became music director of the creative Little Rock in New York City with John Houseman directing.

Speaker So were you aware that he had had to stage?

Speaker Yeah, of course. I of course I knew that, which is why I brought it up. I thought it was the only piece of common ground we might have.

Speaker But as I found out, you know, over the years we were musically, we were very much kindred souls. And I think I really got inside his musical head and a lot of ways.

Speaker And so that's how you got together. And then you became. Kim Stupidhead.

Speaker Yes, that summer, when was this maybe 1980?

Speaker Two, I think it was 1982 that summer, I applied and was accepted to a class where Lenny was going to teach all the young conductors and I think they took about 12 students and I was accepted and it was in Los Angeles and it was oh, it was so glamorous. I remember we were at the Hollywood Bowl and they were we were just a bunch of young, hungry kids. And they were treating us like kings, like we were already great maestros. And I think that was planned.

Speaker But, boy, we spent a lot of time with Bernstein and he kind of singled me out at that time. And he gave me a lot of attention and a lot of lessons with the orchestra.

Speaker And so that was the beginning of our of our relationship, which was as a teacher and student.

Speaker And that relationship for me was like, yeah, how did it change from time to start?

Speaker Well, I worked with him for two summers and occasionally we do a project where I would get to conduct and Lenny would be there in the role of a teacher or we'd be sharing a concert. We did that with the New York Philharmonic. We did it at the Hollywood Bowl a few times and here and there, really.

Speaker But after I produced one of my own concerts in New York City, it was a tribute to Mark Blitzstein. Again, I think it was his 80th birthday year, 90th birthday or something like that. I invited Lenny to come and play the piano and sing a song that he had taught me, which I had. I was crazy for it was we called it zipper fly. It was really it's really called the new suit. But it's about a little shoeshine kid from Harlem, from Harlem in the 40s who has one dream. And that's this brand new suit. And it's got this six buttoned vest. And I probably have one of those now and and, you know, perfectly styled. And the crowning glory of it is that it has a zipper fly. I guess they were in vogue in those days. It was a great party piece. So sure enough, he came in and sang and played on this concert, brought the house down, of course. But he remembered one thing, I think, and that was the day of the concert. I showed up at his house, at his apartment, and I said, OK, I want to I want to hear the I want to hear what you're going to do tonight.

Speaker He said, what? You're auditioning me. I said, no, it's not an audition. You've got the job. OK, relax. But, you know, you always screw up the lyrics and I'm here to make sure you get it right. So we sat there and sure enough, he screwed it up and we went over the lyrics time and time again, you know, about three or four times. He said, OK, great, let's have a drink. I said, we are not having a drink till after the show and you are going to get this perfect. OK, OK. You know, and I left this song with the show. Of course, he was perfect ad libbing the whole time, just being his brilliant self. But he said when that happened, he said, I knew you, you were going to be a maestro because you just left nothing to chance, you know.

Speaker So the is this song. So I need to understand now.

Speaker Mark Blitzstein wrote it. Yeah. And and but and Lenny always used to play it at parties and he taught it to me.

Speaker It wasn't even written down. You know, we haven't really been able to find it. We are going to publish it finally.

Speaker But didn't have to feel like.

Speaker No, but there is some audio recording of it. Uh.

Speaker And there might be some photos, some may have some photos that were taken from the catwalk where the lights are looking down. Yeah, it was a great night. It was very exciting. And everyone was surprised that Mark Blitzstein would generate so much excitement.

Speaker But it was also our illustrious cast, I think, that helped Bernstine, John Houseman, Patti Leupen, Comden and Green, Phyllis Newman, big chorus of Big Orchestra.

Speaker And a lot of people, you know, I say, oh, yeah, you did.

Speaker Right, did it.

Speaker I think finally it's part of the Air Force. But I love to talk to him a little bit about money and markets and that relationship and what he told you about it or if he told you that she did. What do you think attracted me to this day when I was affected?

Speaker Well.

Speaker I never met Mark Blitzstein, so what I know about their relationship, Mark Blitzstein and Leonard Bernstein, is really through Leonard Bernstein. There's some beautiful photographs of them together. And I've heard things from the Blitzstein family, too, that, you know, Mark Blitzstein was a little bit of an aristocrat, which was always at war with his populist socialist political side. And he was a very academic.

Speaker Brayne, almost composer as a young man, he you know, he studied with Arnold Schoenberg and Nadia Bouchet, he went abroad and and did what a lot of Americans did.

Speaker Most Americans maybe Bernstein's the only exception I can think of who did not go to Europe to study and.

Speaker So he had these two sides that war, and Lenny used to say, you know, well, yeah, Mark was a good communist or something, but, you know, he loved to go out and have a great dinner. And, you know, he liked this. He liked that. And I think that's something that that Lenny shared with Blitzstein, not only a love for the finer things in life, but how that reconciled or did not reconcile with their love of humanity, trying to look out for the little guy, you know, the oppressed masses, how to bring them up and all that. And their way to tackle that was was through music. And Mark Blitzstein case, he met Bertolt Brecht and showed him a song he wrote and said, oh, of course, it was a prostitute singing this song about how she's down on her luck. And Brecht said, Oh, this is great, Mark, you've got to turn this into an opera. And that became The Cradle Will Rock, which became so famous because the government closed it down on opening night. They all marched uptown and created this huge scandal. It. I just mentioned because it was so staged. Oh, yes, well, it was 1937 WPA project and Orson Welles was the director, John Houseman. Young John Houseman was the producer.

Speaker I think Orson Welles was 21 or 22. He was a kid, you know, boy genius. He had just done the voodoo Macbeth and and was about to launch the Mercury Theatre. And it was a who's who that production now looking back on on who was important in American theater through the 30s, 40s and 50s anyway.

Speaker But it was a philosophy. I mean, I love things like. We didn't come out of school that said our needs to speak to social change and an awareness of.

Speaker So that sort of thing, to some degree, which I don't, I think that Blitzstein probably thought that for him at least, his way of trying to make the world better was by using his talent, you know?

Speaker And so he wrote the credible rock. He wrote a piece called No for an Answer, which again tackled the issues of big business and labor, in that case, unionization and standing up to labor and getting what you deserve.

Speaker He was working on a piece at his death called Sacco and Vanzetti, which had been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and was decommissioned. He told me about that story. He said Rudolf Bing came to his house to let him know that they could not do Sacco and Vanzetti by Mark Putzing. And then he said, I showed him the door and said, Don't you ever come back? He said, It's the only time in my life I've ever thrown anyone out of his house, out of my house.

Speaker He said, Well, your money and I know that and admires inside a great deal.

Speaker And I think part of it was this sense of political commitment that he felt brought to his work. How do you think that that I mean, how do you see that in these?

Speaker Well, I see it in a few ways. I think I see it more in Lenny's life than than in his actual musical work, his political consciousness, his his sense of being politically involved and what was good for America and what was good for the world. He was also, you know, had high hopes for Israel.

Speaker And I know he was very disappointed about that in the last part of his life. He get very depressed when he went to Israel.

Speaker And I don't I think I know what he would think now about Israel as well. And I think he'd be even more depressed. I think the assassination of Rabin would have just put a knife in his heart, but he still went every year. He was very devoted to to music in Israel, in this country. You know, I think people know he marched in Selma. You know, this business with the the Black Panther Party at his house trying to raise money for legal defense fund for them of some kind and mean the whole day they got the whole world where they were eventually.

Speaker Yeah, that was in the early 80s, I guess. Yes. That was his birthday present. One year, instead of sending flowers or whatever, he sent armbands out to everyone, I think I guess they were blue and it was about, you know, nuclear consciousness and everything. But, you know, Lenny, Lenny's life, especially in later the last few decades, went through such an interesting and impossible time in the world. I mean, yes, the nuclear issue became very big, especially in the 70s and 80s, and it should be big now. Of course it's not. But he I think he realized that. What he used to have in his youth, that I couldn't change the world, you know, he had these amazing experiences which would have told him, you know, I could change the world if I do this and I do that and these people follow me there and these people, you know, I can bring these people together. He was great at that, bringing people together.

Speaker And but I think it became so big and so out of control and that he realized that he had to think a little bit more modestly and what he could achieve politically. And I.

Speaker I think that.

Speaker That showed itself instead of being really politically active, he made his statements very carefully and what he seemed to become more and more involved with was the family. Actually, all of his late work really centers around relationships and the family. Trouble in Tahiti, which is dedicated to Mark Blitzstein, is about a couple that cannot get along. They have a little son who's eight or nine years old and they're fighting the whole time and they don't understand how to make the relationship work. And his opera a quiet place, which he wrote in the in the 80s. And was his his big opera supposed to be the great American opera is about this same family. Thirty years later, the kid is all grown up. He has a boyfriend and a sister. And the wife of of the father has just just died in a car accident. So it begins at her funeral. And the opera is about this family coming back together and whether or not they'll be able to heal the wounds of the past and also overcome this this tragedy of this, the death of the mother, Arias and Becquerels, which was a concert piece for piano and and singers, are eight eight little scenes or songs. Some of them really play in scenes, which were about relationships, about couples of various kinds.

Speaker What are the they like what are the autobiographical elements of what are they?

Speaker And give me the titles. OK, well, write a quiet place I should talk about so that we just keep quiet.

Speaker All right. Can you talk a little bit about what the thinking is, in fact inspired and getting it right?

Speaker I guess so, yeah, of course. I mean, all right. It's in trouble in Tahiti.

Speaker I asked Bernstine this very question, said, gee, Sam, you're your father's name is Sam. This guy's name is Sam. OK, your mom is Jenny, but and this woman is Dyna. But I mean, this is your family, isn't it? He said, well, well, well, you know, I tried to make a little disclaimer, but I'm sure it was drawn on personal experience. I know that his his parents had their fractious moments in the household. So as far as a quiet place goes, likewise, Felicia, his wife died of lung cancer.

Speaker Before the children were grown all the way and that's what happens, of course, in a quiet place, it starts with the woman of the family dying. And then how does the family that's left deal with this? So that's one of one of the themes anyway. So sure, there's all kinds of autobiographical material. And if you're going to write about the family, I guess you better be autobiographical. That's what you know. And it's also Stephen Wadsworth had some similar experiences and he, of course, wrote the libretto, so.

Speaker I think that that really bonded their relationship to they had similar experiences and they wanted to explore the eventual possible outcomes of of these.

Speaker Certain set of circumstances, but you think the me oh, boy, well, I guess I'm partial.

Speaker I think I think there are three or four masterpieces of these eight songs, maybe five, their extraordinary little pieces. I think my favorite is maybe Mr. and Mrs. Webb say good night, because I know Mr. and Mrs. Webb, it's Charles and Kando Webb in Indiana. He's been the dean of the Indiana School of Music for 20 years plus. And he's just now stepping down. And also because he dedicated it to my wife and myself. So I think the original page I have of his manuscript says for Maeno and Lesbo well, lesbo is lesslie.

Speaker And he just called her lesbo one day. That stuck. Of course, she was always that. And I was Maeno because I had always called him Mo Ammo, which is, you know, the Italian abbreviation for Maestro. So if he was Mo, I was going to be Mineau or my history. No, the little maestro.

Speaker Right. So that happened the first time I worked with Lenny in Rome. We were doing his piece songfest, another piece which deals a lot with relationships and families and but back to Arias and Becquerels, I think that's maybe my favorite piece. It's a Mr. and Mrs. Weber say good night is a night time.

Speaker Can't get to sleep kind of thing where Canda keeps trying to fall asleep and they're saying their prayers and she keeps waking up and saying, oh, I forgot these 5000 things. And how, Charlie, you forgot to do this. How dare you? And and the kids are in the other room acting up. It's 4:00 in the morning. They're never going to get any sleep.

Speaker And it's it's really kind of this wonderful fantasy traversing a lot of their relationship. They recall the first time they they went out dancing and she was wearing this beautiful dress. I mean, it's very touching and full of humor to it.

Speaker What was your you work with many of. And how what was your working relationship? And describe what it was like.

Speaker Well, I think the very first experience I had working as an assistant to Lenny was.

Speaker The most telling, because things didn't really change after that, I arrived in Rome, I had wild jet lag. I was so exhausted. He had been there for a few days. He was in his hotel suite. So I let him know I was there. He said, oh, come on up after dinner, we'll go through the piece. And I said, OK, great. So. I had to be as a rehearsal pianist and, you know, ready to take on a rehearsal if if he wanted me to. So we went up there and we went through that whole piece. Nope, I know. And it's a substantial work. It's 45, 50 minutes long and in real time. But we went through it and we were arguing about it. I remember I was very funny because I always thought he was not the best conductor of his own music. Well, while I was convinced he was the best conductor of just about anyone else's music, I kept finding things in his music. And he said that that I wanted him to do. And he was I don't know what that is, but, you know, sometimes a person is very close to their own work has. It has to be a certain way or at the same time, they may have a certain block about it. So anyway, we would argue about this piece, about how the phrases went with the structure of the piece was and what was most important in the piece. We got through it. It was about 4:00 in the morning. We closed the book and I went back to my room and at about seven o'clock the phone rang and hi, Michael, this is Harry Kral. Lenny's been up all night long and he can't possibly do the orchestra rehearsal. So meet me in the hotel lobby in 20 minutes. You're your own kid. Well, this is the first time I've ever been in this situation with the maestro. Suddenly, I had to go and stand in front of an Italian orchestra. God help me and take them through this piece. So, mind you, I hadn't been to sleep either. Right? So that was a good trial by fire. And that's kind of how it always was. You had to be ready on a moment's notice, not only to to stay up all night long, working on parts or making lists of what has to be done at the next rehearsal or making corrections or changes.

Speaker He kept tinkering with everything. Oh, I got a better idea for a new ending here. We're going to do this and he'd write it out. You'd have to go get it. And all of the parts of the entire orchestra working with singers, you know, so-and-so is maybe going to be sick.

Speaker She's got a tickle in her throat. So we're going to fly in this person and you've got to go to her hotel and rehearse for three hours and then bring her over and see Lenny. Anything was possible, good and bad. The story, as I heard Bernstein tell it, was that in the 50s, I guess it was, he took a group of musicians from the Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, to the White House at an invitation from President Eisenhower. So they went down there and I'm sure it was an after dinner short shortish program. So he played a Mozart piano concerto conducting from the keyboard. And and then they played the Rhapsody in Blue of Gershwin, which is a big favorite, you know. And Eisenhower said afterwards, shaking his hand, you know, I like that second piece you played. I like music with a theme, not all of them Arias and Bach roles. And of course, Lenny had no idea how to respond to that. He kind of I think I know what you mean. Yeah. You know, and he tried to explain it. And Eisenhower was steadfast. No, I like music with a theme, you know, and for some reason, the Gershwin had much more of the theme, whatever that was then Mozart works. Right? So so the piece Aria is in Becquerels is really this collection of of little snippets that that Lenny collected over the years and many of which were brand new that are so eclectic.

Speaker You know, each piece is really its own little world. It's not like a song cycle where you hear music being repeated from one one song to the next, or there's some some unifying musical element. Each piece is very much its own little idiosyncratic musical world. So he decided that these were Arias and Barcarolle. Maybe there was wasn't a theme in this music, but. But it's a masterpiece.

Speaker It's a wonderful, wonderful. In very individualistic, very you can hear his voice in it very, very much, and I don't know another piece at all like this, it's very unique.

Speaker You spent a lot of time and came to quite a bit. Yes, I think what.

Speaker Let us know that when you answer this, you know, I spend a lot of time planning for the time at. And then just talk to me a little bit about who he was doing that. Well, this is with where, you know, you actually get to know him very well. Just how about why he was going through?

Speaker Well.

Speaker Probably from 1983 on, which was maybe the second year I studied with Bernstine.

Speaker 83, 84, when I relocated to New York and I I saw a lot of the maestro, both my wife Leslie and I, she was then my girlfriend of many, many years now. She's my wife of many, many years. But we know he loves being around us. I think we were very upbeat and we wanted to have fun all the time. And even when things were serious, it was fun. So and I think we probably buoyed his spirits quite a bit.

Speaker He got he got to some kind of charge out of hanging out with the young crowd and running down to Chinatown for supper. Now, I think he needed that a little bit, too. He go on these really driving concert tours, you know, where he'd give 20 or 50 concerts in quick succession, often touring around the entire world, or at least all through Europe and America is a very difficult schedule. Keep in mind, he was in his, you know, mid 60s or late 60s by this point. And he had a lot, you know, smoking the whole time in a lot of lung problems. His health wasn't terribly good, but he would not give in to the demands of his body. And he insisted on going out late night, going out every night, staying out late. He'd sleep as late as possible, which is why I often had to go do the morning rehearsals, even on tour. But while he was having this big public life, I think he really he enjoyed himself.

Speaker I asked him more than once, do you do you like touring? You know, thinking this life is tough. I mean, it's one hotel after another and you're always on the move and it's such a strain. He said, oh, yeah, I love it. He said, you get I get to see him, all my dear friends who I haven't seen in a long time. And it was very important to him. I think he was really a world citizen and he had dear friends that he loved everywhere.

Speaker So that along with all of this incredible applause, I mean, in the press, in the public, I mean, people mobbing him after the concerts, I think that really gave him a strong jolt of what he needed.

Speaker He was just that kind of person. He loved being in the limelight and he loved being public and it suited him. Now, where the problems usually arose was when he said, all right, now I have to go and write a great work of art. I have to create something out of nothing. And he would have cleared out maybe six months in a row from his schedule is usually in the winter.

Speaker He usually came back in the fall and collapsed for two weeks and have breakfast at five p.m. and I would often see him. He'd be reading the paper ohim, you know, and we'd talk about the paper or read me the read me this section and then we'd talk about music or something.

Speaker And but he would really crash hard after a tour and just get a lot of sleep in. And then he'd go to the country, to his place in Connecticut and try and write music. And it drove him crazy. It it was I mean, he hated it and he loved it, of course. But I mean, it was he said it was the most lonely thing anyone could imagine. He just go and sit out there in his studio and sit at the piano or stare at the manuscript paper. And, you know, he'd have a few ideas that he'd jotted down from the past or something that he didn't use in his show or something like that. And he'd try and create and was very hard for him. And he did manage to create these pieces like Arias and Barcarolle and Jubilee gains, which later became Concerto for Orchestra. But I just know that was when he was at his darkest, really, and that's probably a good spot for an artist to be when they have to create. I think every serious artist has those moments where they just have to confront themselves and their work. And that's an important thing I learned from him. I think beyond the manic part of the work where, well, you have to stay up all night and do this work. So it'll be ready in the morning. And this is new and this has changed. And you don't rest. You know, you just keep going up until the last note of the final concert is played or that last recording is done or you don't stop till it's over.

Speaker And but then when it was over, Lenny put on his other hat and tried to become, you know, the American Gustav Mahler or someone and write something, if not profound, at least really fun, something he could have fun with. And often during these periods, he would write little anniversary pieces, you know, birthday pieces or greetings or a couple of times he would just do something on a JAG, something fun. I remember he wrote a hip hop piece once, which we actually performed on New Year's Eve at St. John the Divine Cathedral here in New York City. But it was about Reagan and he had just discovered hip hop. You know, this is pretty early, you know, rap. And he wrote this little hip hop piece and we had to bang on pots and pans and stuff and play the piano. It was really silly, but very political.

Speaker I remember he called Reagan. What did he some rhythmic thing, the president, you know, and he's full of this made up language, which was he thought very downtown and cool and youthful, I think it kind of scandalized his kids.

Speaker They all went to bury their faces, you know, but or he wrote a piece about Miami Vice. I remember he was watching television and he'd never seen it. Of course, he didn't watch television much, but he saw that he could not believe the dialogue. And he said, what? I can't believe what they just said. I've got to write that down. And he set it to music. And it was just these lines of Miami Vice.

Speaker But it was this very cool little piece was just a little two page number, but I don't think you can sort of give what seemed like a very obvious question and probably very obvious answer, that we have a huge chunk of that.

Speaker For a man who had so much music in his life and he's written about this, you know, it's hard to take off other people's music when you've been conducting other people's music.

Speaker That transition to you can finally find your voice again. But there's something more to.

Speaker Well, I can conjecture a little bit, but maybe it's a little more than conjecture, I think that.

Speaker I think there was a kind of a deep sadness running through the last part of his life, not he started to lose his friends.

Speaker You know, I remember the last decade of his life or so Aaron Copeland got a little fuzzy, you know, and that that was an important friend to him, I think. And just an important musical colleague. Losing Mark Blitzstein in the 60s was was really rough on him. He used to tell me, oh, I used to take everything to Mark. He said, look what I just wrote. And he had this kind of collegial atmosphere in New York with other composers where they were real friends.

Speaker I don't know if that exists today, but they used to share their material and someone would write a tune and someone else would make up a dummy lyric for it, you know, and or like when Mark Blitzstein was doing The Threepenny Opera, he made the first real English adaptation of that. And he came over and showed them to Lenny. And, you know, Lenny loved this. He said, well, here's here's the song Macchi. Messer, you know, I call it Mack the Knife. And it goes like this. And the shark has pretty teeth, dear. Well, not dear. It's not going to be dear, you know, that's just there. And of course, it's dead. You know, there are always these little fillers of dummy lyrics and things, and they just shared everything, you know, and and critiqued one another and made commentary and helpful suggestions to one another.

Speaker I think he missed that. That was a bygone era. Some of his personal friends died. I think the the Kennedy assassinations and Martin Luther King were big. They were for all of us. But I think they cut him quite deeply. The death of his wife, I think, is the general direction of the world.

Speaker He put so much store on black issues in America and the plight of black people and the injustices that they suffered in this country for many years.

Speaker Sixteen hundred Pennsylvania was an attempt at addressing some of those issues. Another political piece. But when it came down to it, I think he realized that it was the problems of America were really economic more than anything. And he I think he just became. Saddened at the greed of humanity and the avarice that.

Speaker And the lack of love in the world, I it was a big champion of love and he wasn't afraid to come out and say so and.

Speaker You know, it seems simplistic, I think, but it. I think he thought that was maybe the only saving grace left in humanity, you know, relationships, love, music, art, I think a lot of people would agree with that, actually, especially later in life.

Speaker And the very astute, astute analysis you made about as he was concerned, which is not unusual at all, the.

Speaker Interior and validation, oh, Arias and Vaccaro's is very much that of that period, it's very much a dark, internal late night thinking kind of piece. Of course, he was an insomniac, so he was constantly up all night thinking, trying to write music, reading. You know, I think as a composer, Bernstein thought of himself not so differently as himself, as a person, not so differently as what he thought of himself as a conductor or a pianist. I think there was a general dissatisfaction or at least a sense that I haven't quite got to where I want to get. I remember I think it was just two years before he died. He was at the Philharmonic and there was a sensational concert he gave with the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, and it was arrestingly. Amazing efforts as a performance was just one of the great performances and I saw him backstage afterwards, he said his head was in his hands and he said that that's the best concert I've given in 20 years, you know, and that I don't know if I would agree with him. But from where he was, he he had it right there. Everything went how he wanted it to go. That's a rare, rare occurrence for even a great, great musician as he was. And I think the same was true of his compositions. He was searching. He was trying. And it may be that he was less facile than he had been as a younger man. Hard to say he was such a workaholic when he was doing his work that, you know, facility, I don't know. Oh, I just dashed this off. You know, he he could still do that in late in life, but. I think that there was always a sense of I haven't achieved that, and I know after he wrote a quiet place, he wanted to write another opera, he was exploring more ideas for another opera. He was talking to Martha Graham about writing a ballet for her. He was back working with Jerome Robbins on this Brecht piece called The Exception and the Rule with John. Also, Stephen Sondheim had written some lyrics for it, but he he was insatiable in terms of trying to get something done, trying to create something and have it be special and beautiful.

Speaker I think he was obsessed somehow with the notion of writing something. Important with a capital I.

Speaker Yes, well, I think he thought about it a great deal. There was so much talk about. Yes, thank you. I think he thought about writing the great American piece, especially an opera. But, you know, when you look at his later output, I think he obsessed about it. I don't think that his attempts, besides a quiet place went in that direction when he came up with were very private, smaller, smaller works having to do with very specific subject material and musically quite modest in scale. Arias and pakoras is exactly that kind of piece. Jubilee Games Concerto for Orchestra is maybe the only other larger public piece that he wrote in that period. But even that has some very private music and it starts with an opening prayer in Hebrew. And it's written, of course, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic and hence the name Jubilee, which means, you know, fiftieth anniversary. So technically that that.

Speaker Interesting experiment. Yeah, I'm trying to think where he got this from. It was either Koussevitzky or somebody had maybe I don't think it could have been Ryner, but it was also an experiment that Lenny had done with the Philharmonic in the 60s, which was. All right, orchestra. We are going to improvise and I'll show you what to do. I the conductor, so he look at the violins and he go and, you know, they go, OK, and they all come in and God knows what note, but there would be a texture there.

Speaker And then he'd look at the trumpets and go, boom, you know, and then he'd go to the timpani, go round and he would play and he'd start to make these textures and he'd get one section doing something and then create a counterpoint over there. And pretty soon everyone. And then he'd take somebody out and bring someone else back. And it was just as free for all with a little bit of structure coming from his head on this spot, just like what a pianist would do if you just sat and said, oh, I'm going to make up. I don't know, let's see what happens and. That's what he was doing, improvising with the orchestra and there are sections in Jubilee Games where this is indeed what the conductor has to do. He took it a step further, which was we had this great new toy in those days called the Synclavier. And you could by holding down one key, you could sample not only a sample record, exactly what went on for 60 or 90 seconds, whatever it was, and then we would play it back. So then it would come right back into the room and then Lenny would improvise with his improvisation that he had just done. Oh. This kind of work has been done earlier with tapes and stuff, but it was a way to create something fun for him and something fresh for the orchestra to do, it could never be the same twice. You had to be very alert and try and read the conductor. And if you're in the orchestra and it was a lot of fun. It also it was full of eclectic, unusual things. There's a movement called mixed doubles, just like we have in tennis, you know, men and women in this case, their odd pairings of instruments. So a violin will play with a bassoon for, you know, it's a theme and variations.

Speaker And then, you know, a French horn will play with maybe somebody over in with a flute or something, you know, someone in that wind section or percussion with something else.

Speaker So. I think that piece was about.

Speaker Creating something for the Israel Philharmonic that was fun, that was a showpiece that also had a Hebrew flavor. One of the movements is called Diaspora Dances, and the concertmaster has to stand up and play like a little klezmer musician for a few measures. And it has very much an old Hebrew melody feeling to it.

Speaker I great. Yeah, he charges that I may not like the right words to say.

Speaker Something about I'm doing a concert about this next week, actually, and it's called Jewish Voices in America. I'm doing it at the Y, but.

Speaker Judaism is something which I think you can really trace through a lot of Leonard Bernstein's music, his first major piece, his first symphony. It's called the Jeremiahs Symphony, and it has some of the lamentations from Jeremiah as the final movement declaimed by the mezzo soprano. I love that piece, not only because it's a great work of art, but because it's such a beautiful, sincere effort by such a very young man, young genius, but. It's got in it, it's so much of it sounds like Copeland sort of expanse of the American West, but in Lenny's hands for some reason, it sounds like the ancient Holy Land. At the same time, there's some kind congruence or something of of the expansiveness of America and the ancientness of the Holy Land. And he got that. So what sounds like the open prairie, say, in Billy the Kid in Lenny's hands suddenly sounds like, oh, these are important old rabbis davening and and studying scripture and seeking the scriptural truth. You know, that really came from. A story that Lenny told me, which I believe is true, I don't think he would make this kind of thing up, he said when he was a little child, his father, Sam, used to take him to visit, but Lenny called his Hasidic friends and they would go over to these no women allowed, of course, to these religious services, which were full of music. You know, and my understanding of of Hasidism is that they use music to reach a certain point of spiritual ecstasy and that it's central to to their.

Speaker A religious expression, so he remembers watching these guys in their peers and their hats and their big black coats and their palace and everything, dancing and praying and everything was in music. And it had this certain deep, ancient rhythm to it. And he said it was intoxicating. And he traces his not only his love for music, but his passion for music, which was so extraordinary to that setting. And that's an amazing story. I think that this is and from my point of view, it Wedad religion and music together for Lenny, not in every piece, but, you know, the Jeremiahs symphony for certain, the Kaddish Symphony, the Third Symphony, Chichester Psalms, which is a big Hebrew, joyous but Hebrew language piece taken from the Psalms, naturally diaspora dances. And there's a and lots of smaller pieces piece from Arias and Becquerels is in Yiddish. It's called ofMan Hasan at my wedding. And it's not religious necessarily, but there are religious figures in it. The old rabbis are there stroking their beards, trying to rationalize everything and and say why everything is so. And but that's a piece about how at my wedding is a piece about how music can create mayhem and and undermine the the best and most ordered intentions. In this case at a wedding, a klezmer musician drives everybody crazy till the old people shout, have mercy. You know, they are they're hurting anyway. But I think that story, that of seeing these guys dancing and chanting and praying is is was really an important. Important moment in his musical life. Yeah, well, I think Lenny's idea of being Jewish was not anything like going to temple, but finding interesting ways to affirm his Judaism, like, for instance, having the Seder in the Jewish quarter in Vienna in a restaurant that the the SS the Nazis during the war, he used to congregate at his famous restaurant. And there was just something, the irony of it all and the beauty of the survivability of it all was so great having a Seder there. And there were some German people there with us. I remember just this whole idea of of he was kind of a Christian Jew just and I say that because my idea of Christianity is about healing and bringing people together and forgiveness. And, you know, as far as Jesus was concerned, I don't know about Christianity today, but Lenny was really great at doing just that, bringing people of very different backgrounds together or very different viewpoints and creating a dialogue with them in a way that would stimulate them both to really at least discuss, if not reassess their own, their own beliefs. Yeah, or having, you know, having some time with his family. We had Sader with Lenny and his family a number of times and or with another family. I remember being in Israel a few times when we had the Sader there. And, uh, but he was not what we would call an observant Jew, but it was certainly in his soul. And he never denounced Judaism for certain. He was very and I think as a young man, he kind of considered himself a Zionist for a while. And he was one of the first ones there in Palestine conducting an out in the ramparts of the battlefield. So. Oh, yeah. Oh, yes. He just said it was when this was the early part of Lenny's career was so meteoric, his rise to fame. And he had so many important.

Speaker Experiences, I mean, and this is important with a capital I. He went to Prague and he would play Czech music and he would go to Poland and play Chopin. And people would he would create riots almost. They would pick him up and carry him through the streets. This is what he said. And I bet he was right, you know.

Speaker You know, when you think of this or this thing in Israel, you know, in Be'er Sheva, there he is playing the piano in the sand in the desert of the Holy Land and, you know, playing good Jewish composers like Gershwin with all of these men in battle just stopping and listening to music.

Speaker I mean, this would certainly be a transforming experience. People in Israel saying, Lenny told me the story of.

Speaker Of men telling their sons.

Speaker That is our David, you know, he's slaying Goliath or that is the future of Israel, it would take him to the concert. Look at that man, that young man. They're playing music that is our future. Or, you know, that he had this power or that people needed someone to fill this vacuum, which wasn't there to to see this young savior of Israel. In his case, it was, you know, a cultural kind of role that he people put tremendous store in that apparently, um. Especially in those years, you can imagine when Israel was trying to be formed and the IR gun was going around blowing up places and well after the war.

Speaker You and I have no personal stories. Extraordinarily.

Speaker And to his credit, you know, Lenny never he was encouraged by Koussevitzky to change his name to Samuel Burns or something like that, or Leonard S. Burns. That's what it was. And it's harder for a Jewish boy to make a career in America, you know, or anywhere. Let's face it, many stuck to his guns and he said, I'm going to make it like as Leonard Bernstein or not at all. And even though his nom de plume as a young man was Lenny Ambre, that that was was not the same.

Speaker You do.

Speaker I do. I never met him. I said a mythologized one I'm afraid of.

Speaker Let's just talk about you.

Speaker Charlie Rangel is the exception to the rule and more eight years later, I guess I could tell this story of which one was that?

Speaker Just the whole story.

Speaker A story, you know, like. Eighteen year, you know, live, right?

Speaker But it sounds like the second time around you were involved with that.

Speaker The reincarnation of 86.

Speaker Right now is the music director says, how it was, you know, obviously again.

Speaker Well, this would have been 1980, so help me out six, seven, eight is seven, I think it was 1987, and Lenny went into his trunk and he came out with a collection of songs and material which he had been working on many years earlier for this little Brecht show called The Exception and the Rule. And in the original idea was much bigger. It was just a play, but it was going to be on the Broadway stage. And as part of this show, there were going to be cameras everywhere and it was a show within his show. So the show was the exception. The rule of the Broadway show was the filming of the exception and the rule for some PBS station. And and you had you were there on benefit night to witness the live taping of this. And everything that went wrong in the taping was also kind of part of the piece. Well, that fell apart for a number of reasons. Jerome Robbins was the director of this and Steve Sondheim was the lyricist. And John Guerra was creating the book. And Lenny was writing the music. Well, it fell apart and Lenny brought this stuff up out of the trunk and he was mulling it over. And I I saw saw him almost daily during that time. I think we were on a tour with the New York Philharmonic. And in fact, I know we were we were in Akron, Ohio, and I looked on his desk. He said, what's this? And he said, oh, that's just some old stuff. And I said, Oh, come on, show me. That's I took it to the piano. I started stumbling through it and I said, Oh, I like this. Oh, I like this. You know, I kept kind of egging him on and he told me what it was.

Speaker And I said, oh, come on, you can't let it sit here. We've got to do something with this. He said, I don't really think so. I said, sure. And he he had been thinking about it for a while. It was an unknown done unused thing left over, which hadn't found a home yet. So he and Jerry Robbins got to talking again. And Gregory Mosher appeared from from Lincoln Center Theater thinking, wow, wouldn't it be great to have. Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein were working at Lincoln Center, whether or not they create anything. I mean, just come on over and play in the sandbox over here. So he opened up a lot of doors and made it possible for Jerry Robbins just to go and work there. We we had two months of auditions. And I mean, it was so involved in Jerry had to have everything just so, you know, that's how he is. And so we got together a cast and we went down into the Mizzi new house theater, a little theater. And we were there for six weeks. And and in preparation for all of this, I remember a lot of meetings with with Robbins and Lenny and Jonquiere and. It was so funny, I mean, Lenny kind of shrunk back into this around Jerry Robbins, into this kind of kid role or something, you know, like I am not worthy or something like that. I don't know what that was. But he would actually audition these songs for Jerry Jerry. I've written three new songs you've got to come over. So I play them at the piano or Lenny Wood and or often and we'd make little tapes of them. Jamie Lynn, his daughter, and I would run up to the studio and into her studio and put it on tape if they were complicated. So and we'd give them to Jerry Robbins and. Now, now, now, Lenny, you're not listening to me. What we need here is, you know, and he was very specific and he was making little road maps that he'd pin on the wall in Lenny's studio, follow these directions, you know, and am now, on the other hand, their relationship. Lenny always talked about working with Jerry as being one of the great working relationships. He said, I go to the piano and I just start to play something. And Jerry would start to move and he'd start to move around the room and I'd watch. And when I do this and he'd do that sort of magical, you know, and a little of this crept in, came back at this time, two older guys, you know, who created all these masterpieces. But I think that there were a few fundamental flaws, and one was.

Speaker That the more difficult side, the darker side of this working relationship and the other one was that I don't think Jerry really or anyone for that matter, really got a grip on how this piece was going to end. And the way we did it in the 80s was we got to the end of the piece. We finished the show, and then we created some material where people stood up in the audience and said, I object. You know, wait a minute, I'm a subscriber. You can't tell me that I'm not doing my part. I subscribe to I support the Fresh Air Fund. I'm an ACLU member. I do this all these good lefty causes, you know, and I was arrested in the Chicago riots. How dare you say to me that I you know, because it is Brecht really sticking it in your face and saying, get off your ass and do something to change the world, you know, just don't sit there.

Speaker And the piece kind of came alive at that point. These people in the audience standing up and singing, but it had no ending. So what would you go from there? That's been the death of many shows. But one of the real memories, along with working with Jerry Robbins for six weeks, which was an incredible education for me. I mean, that was fabulous. It was Lenny auditioning these pieces and Jerry sort of going, oh, that's OK. Or No, no. I mean, just he knew so clearly what he wanted, that he played six measures and he knew already the flavor was wrong and and how he was probably the only person in the world who could stand up to Lenny and say, no, Lenny, come on, this is not what I'm after.

Speaker You know, you're not listening to me.

Speaker You know, it's just like a schoolteacher job is to carry out the the.

Speaker Yeah, I'd say so. That sounds accurate. Afraid maybe is too strong a word. But they had that you mentioned the darker side of the relationship.

Speaker What I meant that, you know, the not the side which was free of Lenny playing the piano and Jerry improvising some choreography in the room spontaneously. It was more this other thing of I'm the director, you're my composer, you know, and Lenny buying into it, you know? And I think he did it out of respect and love for their decades of working together and the fact that they had created some really incredible things.

Speaker I have ever used the public Bible story.

Speaker All right, we were we were touring with the New York Philharmonic and again, mid 80s, I think it must have been 86 maybe. And we came to UCLA and then Royce Hall and there we were. And Quincy Jones. Came to the concert and brought Michael Jackson and Quincy also brought his two daughters, and so they came to the concert and it was Tchaikovsky, Fifth Symphony and Big Fancy program. And it was a very successful concert. And I remember afterwards we were backstage and and then we, Michael Jackson and Lenny and I all had to use the facility.

Speaker So we all traveled into the men's room there. And there was a big line of urinals. Well, we were three in a row, you know, three blind mice. There we were. And.

Speaker Michael said something like, oh, Mr. Burns, I just love what you did with your left hip. I'm going to steal that move. And Lenny, just love this. You know, he thought he adored Michael Jackson. And even when he had his surgery done, he just thought, oh, can you imagine? I mean, he's such he's not even a person. He's an image, but it's such a fabulous image. He I didn't care for it. He was crazy for it. And this was at a time when when Michael was just beginning to do a lot of that structural work and he had all of this makeup on his face. You know, in those days we were saying, oh, is bleaching his skin, he's doing this whatever. Who knows what he really did. But he had a lot of rouge on his face, red makeup, and everyone finished peeing. And then Lenny walked over to him and said, Michael, what is all this crap on your face? And he took this, you know, like your mother would do when you're three. And he started scraping away at his face. And, you know, Michael sort of shied away and he said, oh, Mr. Bernstine, didn't you ever have a pimple? Like, that's why he had all of this on his face. So then we went out to dinner afterwards and I was not sitting next to the two of them, but they did sit together and I'm sure they discussed many, many things.

Speaker And everybody afterwards we found common ground.

Speaker We were talking about this. Right, right. That is pretty funny.

Speaker Well, listen, tell me what is really you have to say I have to ask you about because, you know, I don't know. I mean, I know the specifics of your relationship. Yeah. Very close to my heart. But you know what? I think you saw you him.

Speaker I mean, this is really just part of it. I guess you're looking at you with this tremendous similarity to your parents, your interests.

Speaker Mm hmm. Well, we certainly.

Speaker I felt very, very close to him musically. I mean, I got to a place after some years where I could I knew what he was going to say at a rehearsal because I could hear it and I knew what was important to him. And there were things that became important to me.

Speaker You know, he was really my as a conductor, especially my my mentor, my most important influence, and maybe as a human being, too. I mean, he he really. He was such a presence and he was such a force in my life, I missed him terribly when he died and I know I still miss him terribly. Just not quite as continually palpably as I as a few years back, but.

Speaker It I think when when you're fortunate enough to have been around a great human being, that it changes you and and I had that experience and I'm grateful for it and. It enriched my life so much and did let think that he saw some of himself in me. I think so, especially when I was younger, I was so full of beans and energy and I could pull off the all nighters. And I'd love to have political discussions and I'd love to, you know, argue music and and things like that. And I loved just to take on new projects all the time and do things that I hadn't done before. I I've always been very inquisitive musically. I have a thirst for literary things as well. And Lenny taught me a lot about literary life. You know, he wrote me a sonnet. That's how I learned how to compose a sonnet. Well, I had to answer it, of course. So I used his same rhyme scheme and sent one back in reply, you know, and he was just that kind of teacher, you know, one on one, you know. And his message, if there's a message that I remember him not only for me, but for the world, it was always when I'd say, Lenny, what are we going to do about this or this horrible things happening? How are we going to change it?

Speaker He used to just look me in the eye and say each in his own way, um, do what you do to what you can, focus on your own piece of ground, you know, and and make it flourish.

Speaker Let me give you an example.

Speaker I think he did on it and an hourly or daily way when if he was with you, the whole world would go away and he would be so focused on you and he would want to know the most mundane details of your of your life and what you were feeling, what was going on with you, why you were blocked somewhere. He'd try and shrink you on the spot even if he just met you, and try and unlock your your demons or your the things that were holding you back. Um. That that was that was his magic, you know, that's how he reached so many people, I think he must have had thousands of thousands of people who in his life who felt that they had had a direct and important time with him, if not indeed of a relationship, you know, so. That's a gift. I think that's a great thing. It's hard, hard, especially in New York in the 20th century to and when you have a life as that is as unbounded as Leonard Bernstein's to just stop walking down the street, it would take forever to go from one corner to another, you know, 200 yards.

Speaker He would crawl. I mean, he'd stop. You look in the window, talk to the street vendor. Oh, try on this hat. You've got to have this hat. Oh, it's you, you know, and yes, we'll take one of these hats. And then someone, of course, I think is trying to be noticed to someone, say, actually, Leonard Bernstein. Mm hmm. And, you know, that's another five minutes. So walking anywhere with Lenny, you just had to leave five hours to get anywhere, you know?

Speaker What did you tell your story about how you met when like I had.

Speaker I know. I know. It's hilarious. You are. Oh, you must be OK.

Speaker It's like Danny Kaye. You know, I have been friends with everybody.

Speaker Well, not instantly. But you have felt like you don't were that.

Speaker Oh, yeah. It was like, oh, this is how you make a career. Come to New York and meet all the right people and start start, you know, conducting and playing and taking on projects.

Speaker It's more difficult now, actually. I mean, I've been busy at the 90 second Street Y for the last three years, but I just left. And so I'm looking, you know, one thing I left out, I don't know if it's important, but when I was 30, really just the last two years of his life, I decided I'd been the assistant conductor thing. And for my own future, I thought I really had to get out a little bit from under this towering shadow, you know? And I was so devoted to Lenny and I'm so crazy about his music. And that was hard for me to do. But I, I actually did have to say I said no a few times to some big projects, not because I had something better to do, but because I had to work on getting my own. Identity in my own life, you know, in gear security, right?

Speaker No, no, no, no. Oh, yeah. And believe me, there were so many people who were jealous of me and wanted a chance like I have been having and.

Speaker I thought it was kind of the right thing to do from that point of view to, um. Yeah, it was fun.

Speaker He was great, he was great to me as something less than great to a few other people.

Speaker But now you have of the plate of spaghetti at Daraban Bernstein.

Speaker I missed that one.

Speaker He did I some get me some B mean a few times to very long time the supporting friends, 40 year old friends you know, I mean for 40 years they were friends is what I mean and. Oh, just saying horrible things, things like, you know, sending flowers the next day, oh, I'm sorry. And but yeah, just going too far and I don't know where that came from, but yeah, there were plenty of pills.

Speaker I mean, they all prescription drugs and. Oh, but you know, he had a lot of Speedie pills. I know. And some days I'm. Yeah. And look, you go out, you give a concert and you get out of the concert hall after greeting your 200 best friends at 12 thirty or one in the morning.

Speaker And then you go have dinner and you're out with your 20 best friends and you're, you know, drinking up a storm and you get home at five in the morning and, you know, you've got a recording session at nine thirty. It's you know, I mean, one time we had to scoop him out of bed and throw him in the cold shower and got thrown, but, you know, come on, I said, Lenny, I can't make this recording for you. Yeah, you've got to do it and you're going to do it. Oh, OK. OK, listen, Rafto, that crazy schedule, he just couldn't stop tasting life the whole time. He just wanted to keep doing, you know, sleep was not a priority for him.

Michael Barrett
Interview Date:
1997-11-13
Runtime:
1:20:32
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-7p8tb0zb00, cpb-aacip-504-pr7mp4wb86, cpb-aacip-504-5t3fx74f26
MLA CITATIONS:
"Michael Barrett, Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 13 Nov. 1997, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1061
APA CITATIONS:
(1997, November 13). Michael Barrett, Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1061
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Michael Barrett, Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). November 13, 1997. Accessed January 25, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1061

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