The Bernstein File
I’ll admit it. Since I was 14, I have had a file folder labeled “Bernstein.”
Yes, I am a bit of a file nerd, with notes on vocal technique, quotes from my favorite musicians, program notes by me and others, and charts on almost every piece I’ve learned painstakingly categorized in four mismatched Ikea cabinets. But, it was only last week that I discovered a box of files going all the way back to age 14, and “Bernstein” was the first one. (Probably alphabetical, but still prophetic for this week’s concert topic).
I was about 13 when Mr. O (Ortlip – Director of The Young Singers of Callanwolde) asked me to sing a solo on an upcoming concert. The piece contained some words that seemed odd to me: “Lauda Laude” and “Lauda laudadeedadeede” (or whatever the spelling was). I didn’t quite understand the subtext of this piece that was quixotically entitled “A Simple Song” and was from Bernstein’s Mass (but wasn’t in Latin). But, I loved it. There was something about the freedom in those odd syllables that I now know as derivations of the word “Praise” – something that was counterintuitive to my usual straight-A-fugue-loving self. So, I put my all into it, and Mr. O asked me to sing it again. It became my signature piece that year, and it began my obsession with the mighty Mr. Bernstein.
Around this time, my mother wrote a letter to Mr. Bernstein, asking as only a mother can for him to reach out to her Lenny-Crazed daughter. She carefully typed it on her Emory University Genetics letterhead, and presented me a copy and an amber (“Bernstein”) necklace pendant when all that came back was a free subscription to the Bernstein Newsletter, “Preludes, Fugues, and Riffs.” “I tried,” she said. I didn’t begrudge him for not responding. I think I was more embarrassed that my mom even tried.
My obsession continued.
The next summer, mom and I embarked upon the pre-senior rite of passage: the college tour of the northeast. We stopped at Tanglewood in Western Massachusetts before heading to the futile land of that school in Cambridge. Bernstein was conducting Beethoven 7 (and some work I had never heard of by the same guy who wrote Ceremony of Carols). Mom expressed interest in lawn seats, but I argued to sit in the shed. After all – “It’s Bernstein, Mom. Don’t you understand? I’ll even pay. I’ve saved up some money. I have $60.” Smart geneticist that was, she said okay. We each paid for our own tickets and took our seats smack in the middle of the shed. It was marvelous. I was overcome with emotion (and some confusion) in the Britten Four Sea Interludes, a set of pieces I now LOVE, and the Beethoven was, as expected, captivating to my somewhat untrained ears.
And then, he stopped conducting.
That moment is seared in my mind, but not because of anything that I can pinpoint. (Did it happen in the scherzo? Did the BSO skip a beat? How long did he lean against that support?) Rather, it proved to me that I was making the right choice by going into music. I felt in the shed that afternoon a collective will – a human force that kept the music going. The audience was as much a part of it as the orchestra. Music was about humanity, and I was determined to be a part of that energy.
That was his last concert.
When I got to college, I was armed with the confidence of good music theory scores, prominent roles in musicals, and my time in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. I auditioned for the top chorus, and to my dismay did NOT get in. I had to sing in the second best chorus. (Oh…the horrors!). All worked as it should have, however, because we had the better project that fall. We performed Bernstein’s Mass – “Simple Song “ and all. And, I had a solo. Okay, it was just as the first clapper in the scene where the chorus starts to break out of their shell, but it was my first solo at Northwestern University, and it was BERNSTEIN. I even kept the review (in my Bernstein file, of course!).
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