Jamie Bernstein
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Q&A: Jamie Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein's daughter talks about her father's centennary and appearing with the Dallas Symphony this weekend.

published Thursday, November 8, 2018

Photo: Steve J. Sherman
Jamie Bernstein


Dallas — One of the outstanding passions of Leonard Bernstein’s life was his dedication to popularizing classical music. Nowhere was this more evident in his work on the NY Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts. These regular Saturday afternoon lectures dissected both large and fine points of music from specific composers to basics of rhythm and harmony. Although they began before the great conductor’s tenure and continue to this day, almost a quarter century after his death, they are intrinsically woven into Bernstein’s legacy.

The legacy of teaching and popularization has been carried forth by another Bernstein, his daughter, Jamie, who is a musician, author and teacher in her own right and, along with her siblings, a director of the Bernstein Foundation. She has developed programs for the younger generation that are similar in scope and tone to her father’s, with the added benefit of being able to use his prodigious catalogue of music as their subject. One such program, The Bernstein Beat, will be presented on as part of the DSO’s weekend long Bernstein Festival during the continued celebration of the composer’s Centenary.

Jamie Bernstein found time in the midst of her hectic work of organizing, encouraging and cataloguing for a telephone conversation to discuss the Bernstein Beat, her father’s legacy and the remarkable ongoing celebration of his life and work.


TheaterJones: Thank you for joining us. How did The Bernstein Foundation prepare for all the year’s activity?

Jamie Bernstein: It is my pleasure. It has been an amazing run. Well, we started out by alerting everyone about the upcoming anniversary. Everyone was aware of it of course, but we contacted arts groups around the world to find out what their plans were for celebration and see if we could help with the organization. Not just orchestras and choruses, but theater companies and libraries as well. The response has been so overwhelming. And so multifaceted. We are currently curating more than 3,400 events.


And you personally? How did you and your siblings prepare for the outpouring on your father’s behalf?

Well it has been amazingly emotional. I had just completed written my memoirs of our life together with my father [Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (Harper, 2018)]. Certainly the timing has helped with the book’s sales. But thinking and writing about my life with him helped prepare for all the overwhelming responses of his colleagues and fans that we’ve all heard.


What events during the Centenary have stood out for you so far?

 There have been so many great ones. This has been an unrepeatable opportunity to remind those who knew him and watched him in person about his work and to introduce those who are after his time to his incredible legacy.

The most exciting thing for me have been the school shows, seeing the reactions of all these great young performers when they discover what his music was about. I really loved recently watching a high school in Arizona performing Chichester Psalms. The performers were so excited not only to be doing such a famous piece but also by how thrilling the music was. It’s really gratifying to see these responses.

Also, so many people want to share their personal experiences with me and my siblings. Sometimes it’s to tell us how they remember seeing a concert in person or watching a performance on television. Sometimes it’s a performer remembering an interaction with him backstage, maybe a chance three-minute meeting. So many of them describe this intense experience of communication and connection. It is so moving to see the love that people had and till have for my father.


Has there been anything missing from the celebration? Anything you wish had been done but hasn’t?

I can’t think of any work that hasn’t been performed, even some of his more obscure work. But I’d like to see more creative work developed in response to his life. There are actually two biographical films that are being completed, so that’s pretty amazing. And of course, there’s going to be a blockbuster [film] remake of West Side Story [from director Steven Spielberg] that should come out towards the end of the [2019] season. But I’d love to see new works that are inspired by the music. For instance, I’d love to see an animated version of Candide. I think the play itself has a very cartoon feel and it would play very well.


How does the celebration of his 100th birthday build on your father’s already enormous legacy?

I think all the activities have helped to maintain and restore his recognizability. There was a time (during his life) when my father was all over the place. And of course he still is enormously famous. But some people, especially the younger ones who weren’t born when he was alive, may not have an appreciation for all the wonderful things he did in his career. A lot of that has come back and it is up to us to keep that excitement going and growing.

It is really exciting thing is to see younger people “discovering” my father. They all knew about a lot of his work, but now they are hearing it and performing it in schools and in community performances. And a lot of it is really meaningful for younger people. A play like West Side Story has so much emotional authenticity. It was written about teenagers and it speaks to them with so much resonance—with a message that never goes out of date.


Speaking of a younger audience, tell us about The Bernstein Beat that we’ll see at the DSO.

Well, it’s modeled on The Young People’s Concerts. I’ll talk with the audience and the orchestra will demonstrate what I’ve talked about. And I will be using my father’s music as the subject. We’ll be talking a lot about rhythm, because my father’s work is so rhythmically interesting. He loved movement and rhythmic propulsion. His music, even when it is slow, seems to dance and jump.

The program itself will be very child- and family- friendly, of course. It’s less than an hour long and it will feature a lot of audience participation, just like the concerts you saw my father do on television.


Is there anything else you really want people to know about your father, beyond the music that he created?

Absolutely. There is so much to my father’s life. Of course he was one of the greatest composers, conductors and educators of all time. But he also spent his whole life as an activist. We were recently able to get details about his FBI file and it is over eight hundred pages long! They started it back in the ‘40s.

He was a great and devoted speaker and a fantastic role model because he believed that music and musicians needed to be right there involved in the community. Here was this Harvard educated intellectual, world-traveler and sophisticate, conductor of the greatest orchestras in the world but he never had an Ivory Tower attitude. He was the epitome of the concept of the Citizen Artist. I think that might be the most important aspect of his legacy. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Jamie Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein's daughter talks about her father's centennary and appearing with the Dallas Symphony this weekend.
by Keith Mankin

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