Thank you, Mr. Bernstein
The scene, a darkened classroom at the Ridgefield, Conn. Junior High School. Screen down, projector whirring, and the world's greatest conductor (really the only one I knew except for Miss Daley and Mr. Hanson), Leonard Bernstein, talking to sixth-grader me. (Lesson learned: Don't speak to an audience. Speak to one person.) And addressing me with respect, totally without condescension. His subject? A great Russian composer named Shostakovich, described as somewhat shy, but also as a genius who had been through a lot of bad things, and looked it in the unforgettable image shown of him about 4:00 in. That's what a composer looks like? Huh. Mr. Bernstein told us about Nazi bombings and anti-Semitism, as if we were mature enough to deal with them. (Lesson learned: Don't hide the darker side of the music you present, but don't dwell on it either, and let the listener find out more if interested.) He also used, and explained, terms like scherzo, sequence and theme, as he broke down the beginning of the Russian composer's Ninth Symphony. (Lesson learned: Don't assume the listener knows what musical terms mean, so define them once in a while.) It's in the key of E-flat major, as he told us, though the symphony suprises us by going suddenly into B-flat major. OK, I had played those notes on my tuba, and knew that a key had something to do with the note a piece started and ended with, but didn't know that you could go from one key to another, so that was interesting.
And on Mr. Bernstein went, going through section by section, except, as I learned, they're called movements, focusing on the solo violin, the piccolo, the brass (yay!), and making sense of the whole symphony, taking it apart and putting it back together like building a puzzle or doing baseball play-by-play. So that's what a symphony is, and what a composer does? Huh again. I had heard of symphonies and composers, but this was new. And for one kid, who already was interested in music but didn't really know what it was or what it could mean, it wasn't just a symphony, it was an epiphany. Something started that day at RJHS, a seed was planted. It took a while to germinate, but tended and nourished by mentors and friends, and fed by insatiable listening, it grew into a passion — and a darned good livelihood. So, two days before your 95th birthday (why did you have to die, anyway?), and as my radio career winds down, let me say thank you, Mr. Bernstein, for everything.
Another prized artifact of my youth as a music lover, Bernstein's famed 1959 recording with the New York Philharmonic of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony (original cover above) comes up at 1:00 Friday afternoon on NEPR. Done in Boston shortly after a tour of the Soviet bloc, it's both an historical milestone and a still-vital work of phonographic art. And here's part one of the 1966 Young People's Concert about Shostakovich.