How Leonard Bernstein Made the New York Philharmonic the Most Beloved Orchestra in the World

Classical Music Features   How Leonard Bernstein Made the New York Philharmonic the Most Beloved Orchestra in the World
 
The two-time Tony-winning composer was also the maestro who changed the way the world listens to music.
Leonard Bernstein surrounded by Philharmonic musicians following his inaugural concert as Music Director (1958)
Leonard Bernstein surrounded by Philharmonic musicians following his inaugural concert as Music Director (1958) Courtesy NY Philharmonic Archives

Leonard Bernstein remains an international icon today as a transcendent interpreter, gifted composer, and life-changing educator. It is obvious why the entire world is saluting him this year, which would have been his 100th, and why the New York Philharmonic, with which he forged a vibrant and paradigm-changing relationship, is holding a central place in those celebrations through Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival, October 25–November 14. But while the Orchestra’s performances and activities were enriched by the many sides of his gargantuan talents, the greatest mark he left was in his relationship with the musicians. I decided, as the keeper of the Philharmonic flame, so to speak, to let you in on the more intimate side of that connection, and why we still think of him as our Lenny.

During his years here, Bernstein revolutionized the way conductor and player work together. Though demanding, he was not dictatorial. He believed in inspiring, explaining, teaching, and—above all—that love would achieve remarkable musical results. The late Walter Botti, a member of the bass section from 1952 to 2002, said: “Lenny loved everybody and he wanted to be loved by everybody, but music came first. He pushed the Orchestra, but he never, never embarrassed anybody or put people on the spot. He was a real mensch.” This was a whole new mode of podium behavior that now defines the modern conductor, the standard throughout today’s orchestra world.

Between Bernstein’s Philharmonic debut in 1943 and his final appearance in 1989 he conducted this Orchestra in 1,247 performances. That’s more than anyone before or since. Adding to that rehearsals and recording sessions, I calculate that he appeared before the New York players almost 5,000 times. So much together time can create either tension or affection, and to see which prevailed, all one needs to remember are the great bear hugs.

At the beginning of rehearsal he would go from chair to chair, greeting each musician with the obligatory yet sincere hug. By further calculation, I posit that Bernstein bestowed almost 500,000 of these hugs on Philharmonic musicians; I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that the New York Philharmonic is the most loved orchestra in the world—and that is due to Leonard Bernstein, personally. Mindy Kaufman, flute and piccolo since 1979, recalls, “Lenny always conveyed love, both as a musician and as a person.”

Of course, it is Bernstein’s music-making and particular insight that are his objective achievements, but I do think his respect and caring for each individual musician and, yes, those hugs played a major role in the success of their performances. Evangeline Benedetti, a cellist in the Philharmonic from 1967 until 2011, captures it, “Lenny was a major figure in the world, so you felt a certain awe, but there was also a very personal connection. You somehow felt that you were playing just for him at that moment—that he wanted each person to really do his utmost, and for all of us to put in our personalities. Lenny had the ability to inspire us individually as well as collectively. I’ve not experienced that kind of oneness on a collective emotional level with any other conductor.”

Upon retiring as music director in 1969, at the ceremony where he was named Laureate Conductor, Bernstein said, “It’s been a family association in many ways, and even though faces change, the entity, the totality of the New York Philharmonic remains solid, and I remain bound to it by mysterious cords which tie me to the orchestra as long as I live. In some funny, spiritual sense, they will always be my orchestra, no matter who else’s orchestra they may be.”

Today, the New York Philharmonic still feels that intimate connection.

Barbara Haws is the archivist/historian at the New York Philharmonic.

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