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Lennie on Lenny

What was it like to play under the baton of Leonard Bernstein? Find out in this exclusive account by Lennox MacKenzie, former 1st violinist and Chairman of the London Symphony Orchestra for nearly 40 years.

My first experience of making music under Leonard Bernstein’s baton is etched indelibly in my memory. The programme consisted entirely of the great man’s music in a London Symphony Orchestra tribute concert, and there was a heady mixture of nervous apprehension and restless excitement as we awaited his entrance at the first rehearsal. He didn’t disappoint. 

Dressed in a bright pillar-box red jumper, white trousers and intricately embroidered cowboy boots (with a black cape thrown over his shoulders) he vaulted onto the podium with a massive and infectious broad smile on his face, throwing imaginary kisses around the orchestra. Our chairman of the time introduced him to us as the most unique conductor of the times, only to be chastised for his incorrect use of English grammar by the Maestro, “I may be unique, but I cannot be most unique!” Any trepidation the musicians may have been experiencing evaporated instantly and, lighting a cigarette, Lenny gave the upbeat with it to start the rehearsal. Within two minutes the house fireman in full regalia arrived and divested Lenny of the offending fire risk article, much to his feigned chagrin! I realised immediately this was going to be a fun week.

He revelled in conducting his own music. It was a joy to behold. Totally involved in ensuring our performance of his music was exactly as he imagined and wished, it was as if he was reminiscing about how and when he had created this incredibly personal testimony. He would recount to us what every motif or phrase represented within the score. Whether it was descriptions of the text of Plato’s Symposium on which his Violin Concerto “Serenade” is based, or a portrayal of a late-night swinging party in his “Age of Anxiety” symphony he would describe in huge detail what the music represented. 

His energy was astonishing. He would leap into the air all of a sudden and expect total tutti unison when he landed. He took utmost care over the simplest touching phrases, until it was as he wished, often visibly moved by the musicians’ interpretations, his eyes dampening. Emotion, dynamics, tempi were relayed not only with the use of his forever demanding fingers and hands, but even more so with those expressive, sparkling eyes.

0828-14-Bernstein & LSO concert RAH 1966

He was the ideal musicians’ musician of course. Not only a master conductor, wonderful composer, a brilliant pianist, a writer and an inspiring educator. When conducting other composers’ music it was evident to me that he forever strived to get right into the mind of whomever’s the music was. It was as if he tried to imagine actually being the composer in order to attain the correct interpretation.

When I first became the LSO Chairman I had the task and the privilege of spending time with Lenny discussing orchestral matters and scheduling. He was forever welcoming and referred to me as “The Alternative Lenny”. There was one occasion in 1990 at the Pacific Music Festival, where I was summoned first thing in the morning to the green room in Sapporo, Japan. It was an unusual request for that time of day, and I was concerned that something may have upset him – so when I arrived to discover him being treated by doctors (whom he demanded leave immediately), I thought I was in for a difficult encounter.

Just the two of us left in the room, he invited me to sit down and told me the doctors were very strict and would not let him smoke. Knowing that I enjoyed a cigarette in those days he begged me to give him one, and we spent a most pleasant hour smoking and discussing music, family and all things good in life. The subject somehow got onto Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and he spent twenty minutes reciting the libretto of “The Pirates of Penzance”, both of us hooting with laughter as he remembered the hysterically funny verses. He reminisced that he hadn’t thought about the piece since he had organised and conducted a performance when an adolescent, some 50 years before. I was astonished at his power of recall.

"I’d walk off the stage at the end of a concert and he’d be there with a huge gold goblet of whisky, give me a kiss and a hug and push the goblet into my mouth. Then he’d move onto his next victim."

Working with Lenny was a joy and an inspiration. His deep love of music was infectious and you wanted to play your very best because you knew just how much it meant to him. I remember him saying that not one day could pass without him thinking about music, playing music and studying music. Love is the standout word for me when I think of him: he loved music, he loved the musicians he worked with, he loved the audience, he embraced everybody and was always hugging and kissing people. Making music was just one big love affair for him. I’d walk off the stage at the end of a concert and he’d be there with a huge gold goblet of whisky, give me a kiss and a hug and push the goblet into my mouth. Then he’d move onto his next victim.

When we were in Sapporo, at the end of the festival he was interviewed in front of the audience and the interviewer asked him, “Which do you prefer – conducting or composing?” He replied “I love everything I do in music: playing, composing or conducting, but now I wish to prioritise education to the rest of my life. Education is so important”. And what a brilliant educator he was. His Young People’s Concerts spoke for themselves, but his entourage always included young hopeful conductors and Lenny ensured they were there, and that he gave of his time to them, imparting his extraordinary knowledge and enthusiasm. Just so generous.

I still miss him.

The London Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop perform Bernstein's Candide on the 8th and 9th of December at the Barbican, London. More information and tickets here.

Listen to the LSO and Sir Simon Rattle performing Bernstein's Wonderful Town on Primephonic


 Photos courtesy of the LSO Archive.