“Lenny,” “Lenyushka”, … “Maestro”

by Mitchell Sardou Klein - March 2018


These monikers tell you a lot about the unique place of Leonard Bernstein in the history of American music.

He hated to be called “Lenny” by strangers, but he became such a familiar, human and loved international figure that it was inevitable. No other symphony conductor of his era (when legendary podium masters were both revered and feared) could have been addressed so unceremoniously. He made classical music an integral part of the ordinary American home.

“Lenyushka” was Serge Koussevitsky’s endearing nickname, embodying his profound musical and personal influence on Bernstein, leading him to the exuberant conducting gestures that we remember, after having been trained by the formidably economical and stark technique of Fritz Reiner (his first teacher at the Curtis Institute). Bernstein and his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre, named their son for Koussevitsky.

And finally, as his stature rose worldwide (and especially when he ascended the podium of the austere Vienna Philharmonic and led them through ten triumphant seasons), he was the universally venerated “Maestro:” the one global symbol of the highest artistic and spiritual plane who could lead the celebration of the fall of the Iron Curtain in a Christmas performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Berlin Wall in 1989, televised live throughout the world.

But for a kid like me who grew up in New York City during the heyday of Bernstein’s transformative tenure with the New York Philharmonic, his influence was comprehensive and very personal. I was mesmerized by his Young Peoples’ Concerts live at Lincoln Center and on TV (check them out on YouTube – they are still the most cogent and riveting talks ever done about how music works ). Later, I ushered at Lincoln Center during his elevation of the Mahler canon to the esteemed place it now holds. I was a friend of the composer Luciano Berio (lived up the street from him in Weehawken, NJ) as Bernstein was working on the memorable premiere of Berio’s influential masterpiece, Sinfonia, and I observed that process. And, later, I worked as a music critic in New York, seeing and hearing many Bernstein performances with various orchestras.

Much of the generation of conductors between his and mine came to be referred to as the “Lenny-clones.” Today, we see his imprint on conductors as far apart generationally as Michael Tilson Thomas and Gustavo Dudamel. This influence has been overwhelmingly positive – Lenny’s red-hot passion for the inner life of the music lit up the world as long as he was around, and it still glows. He was the ultimate polymath; brilliant in theater, composition, poetry, ballet, piano, education, politics, and conducting. His restless and driving thirst for more and more challenge kept him from slowing down and his somewhat reckless personal habits (e.g. he refused to try to stop smoking) led to his earlier-than-necessary death. I recommend the obituary written by the NY Times Music Critic Donal Henahan for a fascinating and comprehensive look at his life:


So, it has been a thrill to immerse myself in his music, his recordings, and his educational legacy as we prepare for the Peninsula Symphony’s March concerts – An American Celebration – Bernstein’s Centennial. The West Side Story Symphonic Dances are the perfect centerpiece. Only Bernstein could have fused Shakespeare, jazz, symphony, mambo, poetry, cha-cha, story-telling, and the gangs of New York into a musical work that still resonates so deeply and carries immutable images to every listener. I hope you enjoy the concerts.


Jim FungComment