Sound

Leonard Bernstein remembers his first time


Fritz Reiner, while a major influence, did not create as much of an emotional impact on Lenny—not as compared with the effect of [Dimitri] Mitropoulos and [Serge] Koussevitzky on him.

Still, Bernstein learned a tremendous amount from Reiner, who was tough and demanding. No standard was too high.

He early imprinted on Lenny’s mind the axiom that unless one really knew every last note of a score, one had no business standing on the podium in front of an orchestra. Lenny told me that Reiner was ruthless in his quizzing, that nothing was good enough, that no one was ever good enough.

Bernstein nevertheless managed to become the Liebling [German, “darling”] of his class, much to the consternation of other Curtis [Institute, Philadelphia] students.

It was at Curtis that Bernstein first conducted an orchestra. While Fritz Reiner regularly directed the Institute’s student orchestra, he occasionally allowed his students to have a try at it.

Lenny describes his first conducting experience as unforgettable. “It was Brahm’s Third, first movement,” he told me.

“I went mad! I was engulfed in a sea of sound! I was not prepared for this. It came at me with such rushes, and I was conducting like a mad, mad… like a dying swimmer in the ocean. Engulfed in a hurricane of sound! It’s incredible the first time. No one can know what it’s like to stand in an orchestra. I’m sure I was just horrible. But that was the first time for me.”

Gruen, John (Author) and Ken Heyman (Photographer). The Private World of Leonard Bernstein. New York: The Viking Press, 1968. 53. Print.

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