Jamie Bernstein, eldest daughter of legendary American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, visited CYSO in February to accept the Note of Excellence Award at our 2018 Gala. The event celebrated the music of West Side Story as part of the worldwide celebration of the Bernstein Centennial for what would have been the composer’s 100th birthday.
Three CYSO students—Interviewers Oliver Talukder and Nathaniel Sanchez, along with photos by Christine So—had the opportunity to sit down with Jamie Bernstein to talk about her life and work, and the tireless work of she and her siblings to celebrate and preserve their father’s legacy.
Oliver: So, I’d really like to know what a typical day in your life is like.
Jamie Bernstein: Well, my current life is nuts, because we’re in the middle of the centennial celebration for my dad. To give you an idea, we have a database at the Leonard Bernstein office where everyone is keeping track of all the different centennial related events worldwide and we are well past 2,500. Luckily I have a brother and a sister so there’s three of us. We sit down with the schedule and map it out like a military campaign, ‘Okay, you go to Vienna, and then you go to London, and then I’ll meet you in San Francisco, and then we’ll go to Miami’ and like that. It’s just nuts, but it’s very exciting!
So, to answer your question, every single day of the week is different and every weekend is different. Where was I last weekend? Oh yeah, first I went to Philadelphia to do a brand new family concert about my dad with the Philadelphia Orchestra and a lot of young performers and that was a great thing to put on in Philadelphia because they all came from Curtis! [Laughter and cooing] So that worked out beautifully, it was a really good concert! And then I went straight from the hall to the airport to fly to Los Angeles so that the next afternoon I could see the LA Philharmonic performing my dad’s Mass which also has loads of other people involved. Not just the orchestra, but also an adult chorus and a kids chorus and the Celebrant, who’s the protagonist, and then the street chorus, who all sing in this Broadway vernacular, plus a rock band, a blues band, and a marching band.
And then I got back on the plane the next morning and flew home to New York because I had a big meeting with my publisher because I have a memoir coming out in June. It’s called Famous Father Girl. [Laughter] Because that’s what’s my second grade classmate used to call me to tease me. I decided it was a kind of fun snarky type title for my book.
So anyway, right at this moment in my life, everyday is different but everyday is about my dad. You get the idea right?
Oliver: Yeah! You mentioned before that you traveled to narrate a concert right? So, I just want to know more about what narration is, how you do it, and how you found that as your passion.
JB: Well, it was kind of by accident. This was not what I was intending to do with my life. I had done this and that for many years and then in the 90’s, a few year after my dad died, his publisher had this interesting idea to develop a family education concert, modeled on my dad’s Young People’s Concerts that he did on television with the New York Philharmonic. They thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to get somebody to write a young people’s type concert but about Bernstein and his own music and then offer it to orchestras around the country?” and we all said, “Yeah, that’s a really good idea,” and I saw my hand go up and said, “Actually, I would like to help develop that concert.”
I had never done anything like that, but for some reason I thought that I could. We developed a concert, that was all about my dad and his music, and our topic—because my dad’s Young People’s Concerts always had topics— was rhythm, which of course automatically steers you to all the jumping that Bernstein music.
So, it turned out really well, it was called The Bernstein Beat. And, while I was writing it, I didn’t think that I’d be the narrator but by the time I’d finished writing the script, I just felt like it was in my voice and that I could do it. So, we premiered it with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City and it went great! We wound up doing that all over the place, and I really mean all over the place. We took it to Beijing, we took it to Havana, and then we started taking it around the country.
Carnegie Hall invited us to do the concert there and they liked is so much that they invited us to write more educational concert about other topics and we made one about Aaron Copland, and we did one called Extreme Orchestra which is all about tempo and dynamics. All the fastest, and the slowest, and the loudest, and the softest music but all in different combinations. We just kept writing new concerts, one after another! So, that’s how I got into this racket, and I’ve been doing it now for about 18 years. So, by now I’ve gotten kind of good at it. [Laughter].
Oliver: What impact did your parents have on your music education and your love of music?
JB: Well, that’s a big question in my case! That’s why I wrote my book. So, the long answer is in my book, which you can read in June when it comes out! But the short answer is that all three of us, my brother and sister and I, were all very musical and we were all forced to take piano lesson, but we did not like our piano lessons. We never practiced and we had terrible attitudes and it just didn’t take.
But when I finally quit my lessons, around the age of 16, I started playing the piano just for fun and was also playing the guitar because I found a guitar in the closet. Somebody had given it to my dad and he didn’t care about the guitar, but I did because I was totally crazy about The Beatles.
So I taught myself how to play it and I realized that I could play pretty much any song on the radio. All the “doo wop” songs had the same chord progression. So, suddenly I just understood everything. I was writing songs myself and getting more and more into it and for a while I actually did pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. I moved to LA and I made demo tapes, and I finally got my record deal! And I made my record and it didn’t come out very well and, the record company decided not the release it. THE END! [Laughter]
“This narrating concerts thing turned out to be an unexpected good compromise. It kept me in the world of music and it allowed me to experience music.”
By then I had gotten married and I started having my kids and I thought, “Ugh. I’m too old for this and anyway. I’m way too old to be on the road.” Which is so funny because [now] I’m on the road all the time. But I was so relieved when I wasn’t trying to make music with my own body anymore because it always made me nuts. I would get so anxious and I would make mistakes and I would forget my lyrics.
But it turned out that this narrating concerts thing turned out to be an unexpected good compromise. It kept me in the world of music and it allowed me to experience music, be with musicians, to think about music, and to talk about music that people are listening to, and adding value to the proceedings because people like to know a little bit about what they are going to hear. It helps them absorb the music. So, that was the unexpected turn that my life took, but it’s turned out to be very satisfying.
Nathaniel: What was it like growing up with a composer in the house?
JB: Read the book. That’s why I wrote the book because so many people ask me, “ What was it like growing up with a famous father?” And the short answer is: it was really fun and cool most of the time. Both my parents were amazing, interesting, smart, fun-loving people, and they had really interesting, smart, fun-loving friends.
The house was always full of people, and there was always music, there was always laughter, and there were word games, and charades. In the summer we could play tennis, and we swam in the pool, and there was a lot of extended family, and so like the house was always full of people and full of talk and laughter. Everybody was reading books and going to the theater, and so, you know, there was just all this vivacity and intense exchange of ideas.
“My parents just were really involved in trying to make the world a better place.”
Also, my parents and their friends had really strong political opinions, and they were very involved in social justice, especially my mother, who worked for the ACLU and the Committee for Public Justice. Mmy parents were always throwing themselves into any causes that they felt would help relieve any injustice in the world. So they were very involved with Civil Rights and very involved with the Anti-War Movement during the Vietnam War. Later my father was very involved in AIDS advocacy. You probably don’t know this, but in the 80’s, the AIDS Crisis was raging and people were dying by the thousands, all over the country.
My parents just were really involved in trying to make the world a better place. So my brother, sister, and I grew up completely immersed in that experience. We marched against the Vietnam War as a family, and it was all about no nukes, and speaking up. My parents got in trouble often for speaking up, but they spoke up anyway. That’s what they felt they had to do, and that was the message we absorbed as we grew up in their midst.
Oliver: So a final question, do you have any advice for the kids in this orchestra and all teenagers who are aspiring to be professional musicians?
JB: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, I’ve been very involved in the El Sistema Movement and I made a film, a documentary, that you can watch on Netflix, called Crescendo: The Power of Music. It follows three kids who are in these kinds of youth orchestra programs for social change, two of them in Philadelphia and one in Harlem in New York City.
I feel like the great thing that is happening for young musicians today is that they have this fantastic model for how to bring your music into the community. And how not to be squirreled away in an ivory tower, but instead to really bring your music right into the that world you live in.
I think that’s the best thing that has happened to music in a really long time. It’s going to save classical music from turning into some sort of ancient, desiccated artifact. Instead it’s going to give it new energy because all these youth orchestra programs are being started up all over the country in all these different kinds of really diverse communities. So many people in these communities are going to be exposed to this orchestral repertoire.
The idea is not that everybody attends the youth orchestra should become a musician; The idea is that it helps you be a citizen and helps you be in the world in what you do, and give you confidence—all those good building blocks for adulthood—no matter what you wind up doing.
But some of those kids will turn out to be musicians [and] each of those kids brings their entire community with them if they join an orchestra. So it’s exponential. All of a sudden, you’ve got these new audiences who are going regularly to concerts. They are following their kid as they become professional musicians. You’re infusing concert hall with these brand new, really enthusiastic audiences who have been going to concerts for quite a while.
When I visited Venezuela, where El Sistema began, I saw this actually happen. I went to a concert with one of the youth orchestras in Caracas. Gustavo Dudamel was conducting and the audience was completely full of kids with their instruments tucked under their seats and also lot of those kids’ relatives were there, too. And they were playing Tchaikovsky 4 or 5, and [the kids] were leaning forward in their seats like it was a ball game because everybody knew it and everybody knew what was coming. “Oh, here comes the really, really loud fun part.” They were all like so into it. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
“The idea is not that everybody attends the youth orchestra should become a musician; The idea is that it helps you be a citizen and helps you be in the world in what you do, and give you confidence—all those good building blocks for adulthood—no matter what you wind up doing. “
So my dream is that one day something like that might be happening in the US because we’ll have so many youth orchestras that have been around for long enough that some of those kids are now entering the professional orchestras and bringing all their people with them. Well, that’s a nice dream isn’t it?
This interview was edited for length.