Conducting and studying with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood

Copyright Heinz H. Weissenstein / Whitestone
Photo courtesy Peter Weissenstein and Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives

The very first time I encountered Leonard Bernstein was as a student of conducting at Juilliard. I was one of six Conducting students, part of the Young Conductors Project.  It was a warm day in the late spring, early summer, and normally the Conductors orchestra was made up of Juilliard players who really did
not want to be in the Conductors orchestra as it was a working laboratory for us young conductors. But on that day word got out that Bernstein was coming to do a session, and practically the whole school wanted to sit in on the various sections, particularly the strings.

We Conducting students were  all assembled waiting at a table when Bernstein came in wearing a cape and smoking a cigarette. The room was packed, Bernstein jumped on the podium and exclaimed, “Jimmy did it!! Jimmy did it!!!” It was the day that Jimmy Carter had negotiated a peace settlement between Menachem Begin, the Prime minister of Israel, and Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt. Very few in the room knew what he was talking about as most Juilliard students made little time for anything else but practice. I was slightly older than the others, 27 or 28 and I knew what he was talking about.

Excitedly he raised his arms and called out to the orchestra, ”Let’s play an Eb Major chord for Jimmy Carter.” Everyone who had been transfixed by his presence scurried for their instruments, no one quite ready to play, and began to play whatever note in an Eb Major chord they chose as he gave the downbeat in the most triumphant fashion he could muster. The room resounded with a glorious Eb Major chord.

He then said “And now lets play an E minor chord for Menachem Begin,” as he raised his arms in a gentle and tender way and the orchestra played a beautiful soft chord.

It was a glorious moment.

My next encounter was when I studied with the Maestro at Tanglewood, as depicted in the photograph.