When I was in high-school in the early 70s Butler University, where I
went to take my violin lessons, put on a production of Leonard Bernstein's
Mass. The work was very new at that point. So putting it on was a rarity.
Through the connections of my violin teacher Mrs. Rhodes I was able to
"sneak" into one of the rehearsals. What was more, there was a strong
rumor going around the music department that Bernstein would attend
I was sitting on the second level in a corner box seat. Which was a
rather steep but still excellent view. The rehearsal went as most
rehearsals go — with little stops every once in a while for some fine
tuning of the performance. After about an hour the rehearsal stopped.
I didn't know why at the time, but evidently the conductor of the Mass
had gotten some sort of signal. Bernstein was there. In he walked from
the front of the hall towards the stage. He had a thick head of silver
hair and was wearing a long black wool Winter coat draped around his
shoulders. He looked — and more or less acted — rather regal. Going
up to the front of the stage he talked with the conductor a bit, then
said some words to the orchestra and chorus. Then he sat down in the
front row and listened to about 10 minutes of the rehearsal. At the
next pause he got up, nodded and smiled, and left the hall.
My encounter with Bernstein at the rehearsal was distant and brief. But
my encounter with Bernstein the conductor, composer and music educator
was very personal indeed and lasted across decades. I used to argue back
and forth in those years with a friend of mine as to who was better for
Mahler — Bernstein or George Solti. My friend thought Solti was superior.
I preferred Bernstein. And though I loved Bernstein's conducting in a wide
variety of musical styles, it was no doubt his Mahler that I loved — still
love — the most. Even just remembering him conducting Mahler's 9th
gives me shivers.
A lifelong chain-smoker, Bernstein died in 1990 at the age of 72 due to
emphysema complicated by pneumonia. But I suppose that if he hadn't
smoked he would have died of something eventually. And if he didn't die
in 1990 he would have died in 2000. Either way, it would be much too