Reminiscences on Bernstein

Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of Leonard Bernstein, the composer and conductor who almost single-handedly managed to keep classical music relevant and vital to the general public during the early years of the rock-n-roll age. Though his influence in that regard arguably died somewhat earlier than he did, I look back on his death as a significant blow to the fortunes of classical music in general, which had long suffered a disconnect from everyday people in America, for reasons I won’t get into here. Others have addressed his influence eloquently; and on today’s anniversary, other authoritative voices have added thoughtful tributes, including Bernstein’s own son.

In that context, I figure I should stick to my personal experience with Bernstein.

In the summer of 1988, I was entering my junior year as a student at Indiana University, where I had been studying classical percussion performance. Earlier that same year, I had participated in a production of Bernstein’s rarely performed “Mass,” a sprawling Tower of Babel writ in music. In late August, I and the 100-plus musicians who had performed that work hopped on a plane and flew to Massachusetts, where we performed the “Mass” at the Tanglewood Music Center for Bernstein’s 70th birthday celebration.

Last month, as coincidence would have it, I bought a two-CD recording of the “Mass.” As I popped it into the CD player later that night, I began writing in my journal. Here’s that entry, in its full, unedited stream-of-consciousness:


Sitting in the basement listening to the riotous opening “Kyrie” to Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” memories flooding in from when I sat in the percussion section performing this same music more than 20 years ago now. I remember getting chewed out by the conductor in front of the entire orchestra during a rehearsal when I was unable to play the drumset part. Ugh. I remember flying to Massachusetts for our performance at Tanglewood — my first airplane flight since I was a young kid. Sitting next to the percussion section leader, a long-haired dude named Jamie something, feeling queasy, feeling like the plane was constantly tilting upward, even as we descended; looking at Jamie, noticing that he was asleep with his eyes half open, only the whites visible. Fucking creepy.

I remember hanging out with a female violinist — maybe near a lake? We hit it off quickly, I thought we would date; but later, when we got back to Bloomington, she admitted she was engaged to someone. Oops.

I remember performing for a huge and appreciative crowd that included Bernstein himself, who, appearing quite drunk, told the crowd afterward that it was the best performance he’d heard of anything, ever. I somehow doubt it.

It was probably the most moving musical moment of my life. I remember quietly crying at the end of the performance, back there in the darkness of the orchestra pit — I suspect partly for the message and mood of the music, and partly for what I knew I was giving up. By that time, I had already decided I was done with the music school. I remember this being a bittersweet farewell to the passion I had devoted myself to for most of my life.

I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

1 comment to Reminiscences on Bernstein

  • Pat Nickell

    I’m not sure that this would qualify as a “tribute” to Bernstein commensurate with the “greatness” you seem to attribute to him. As a child and teen during the years in which he had his greatest impact, I remember three things distinctly: 1. He wow-ed America with his children’s concerts that I watched and/or listened to enraptured. 2. There was quite a reaction to a Jew writing a Mass. 3. “West Side Story,” in equal measure, shocked and thrilled music lovers young and old. He remains to this day, my personal musical icon.

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