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Marin Alsop on Leonard Bernstein

2018, Leonard Bernstein's centenary year, has seen a huge number of performances and album releases of the great man's music – both as a conductor and composer. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bernstein was his extraordinary gift for communication and teaching. We asked his protegée Marin Alsop to reflect on what made her mentor so special.

Leonard Bernstein was a great storyteller. He could find the connection between politics and art, or kabuki theatre and Schumann – as disparate and diverse topics as possible. The genesis of this came from a very deep rooted passion he had for learning and existing in the world in general – he believed that if you boil things down to their fundamental existence, everything is tied together by stories, and everything in life is a narrative.

This idea of storytelling was the foundation of his relationship with orchestras. He was convinced that as conductors, it is our responsibility to be the messenger for the composer. When Bernstein was conducting Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, he was Tchaikovsky. He had embodied the narrative and the story so much that he really felt he was on the precipice of suicide, and I admired that total commitment. Moderation was the only word he wouldn’t acknowledge existed, because he couldn’t do anything in moderation.

Every moment I spent with him is imprinted, almost burnt into my memory, because it was such a heightened experience. I spent a lot of time with him outside of the formal lessons, and he was always very unexpected. Once when we were talking about Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, I said to him, ‘Oh, you know, it reminds me of this Beatles song’, and he ran to the piano and started playing. It must have lasted hours – he played every Beatles song!

He also gave me an incredible confidence to be myself. I think, this is a tremendous gift for a teacher to try to bring out the best in someone. And that’s really the objective of a conductor – to enable people to be the best they can be, and his teaching approach wasn’t so much motivated by the audience as his internal desire to share  – whether he worked with an orchestra of young people or the New York Philharmonic, it was essentially the same approach: that same unbridled enthusiasm and authenticity. He believed that it was never necessary to dumb down to people, particularly children, because everyone has a huge capacity for knowledge and understanding.

Bernstein Run

Above: A young Marin Alsop wows Bernstein at Tanglewood

He was always seeking answers to some very fundamental existential questions for himself, and it didn’t matter if he was conducting, composing or teaching. To me, these questions are about what we believe in and what we can believe in. There’s a very Beethovenian element of faith in humanity through all of his composition, and these are some very important threads that connect us to some other dimensions, whether it’s biblical (in the Jeremiah or Kaddish symphonies) or literary (Age of Anxiety, Serenade, Candide, or even Romeo and Juliet in West Side Story.) He’s always showing that story is what connects us as human beings, and maybe, ultimately, it’s the story that is the hope, and if we forget the story then we really lose the plot. After knowing him a little bit and getting some distance, I think that everything he did was exactly who he was.

He could take the most complex thought or work of literature and distill it to something very simple in many of his compositions – like Age of Anxiety, which is an epic poem by W. H. Auden, or Plato’s Symposium going into The Serenade. I loved to go over to his apartment at the Dakota in New York, and just look through his library of books, because every single book had all these little slips of paper where he had something important he wanted to go back and think about, or if he wanted to find something.

Once I had to review his Harvard Lectures for the Public Radio, and I absolutely fell in love with those. I think these lectures were the birth of interdisciplinary learning, teaching and thinking. This idea that language and music are interconnected, together with art, beauty, symmetry, and asymmetry. I kind of recreated one of them with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – the one where he talks about Mozart, and how beauty is all about ambiguity. So maybe his work is the measuring stick for us all – everything that we do is derivative and imitative, to a certain extent, from what he did because he was the first, and he did it so masterfully. Many young people now tell me that they watch Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, and people of my generation say, ‘Leonard Bernstein – he's the reason I like classical music.’

Marin Alsop conducts Bernstein's Chichester Psalms at Chichester Cathedral next month (where it was originally performed and commissioned) with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the three Cathedral choirs who sang at the premiere in 1965 – Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester. More information and tickets here.

Listen to her conducting Bernstein's 3rd Symphony on Primephonic.

Marin Alsop – Bernstein: Symphony No. 3 "Kaddish"