Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Miracle on 57th Street
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Leonard Bernstein conducting in the 1940s. (The Leonard Bernstein Collection, ca. 1920-1989, Library of Congress. )

St. Paul, Minn. — The American novelist Thomas Wolfe said that America is not only the place where miracles happen, but where they happen all the time. This is the story of a miracle, a true-life fairy tale, and appropriately enough it begins with the intervention of the Almighty.

Polish-born Artur Rodzinski was the music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1943 to 1947. He was an eccentric, a health nut who drank only milk from goats he raised himself on a farm in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and who kept a loaded revolver in his back pocket whenever he conducted.

Rodzinski said that God told him to hire young Leonard Bernstein, of Lawrence, Massachusetts and Harvard, to be the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Wisely acting on this advice in the summer of 1943, Rodzinski was responsible in more than one way for what radio audiences heard on Sunday, Nov. 14 1943, when they tuned in to their regular Philharmonic radio broadcast. "Good afternoon, United States Rubber Company again invites you to Carnegie Hall, to hear a concert of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra [sic], of which Artur Rodskinski is musical director. Bruno Walter, who was to have conducted this afternoon, is ill, and his place will be taken by the young American born assistant conductor of the Philharmonic Symphony, Leonard Bernstein."

American-born is significant. Most, if not all, orchestral conductors at this time were European-born. Artur Rodzinski wanted to change that. He believed that the vitality and the health of the orchestra as a medium of entertainment, and ultimately the interest of the American audience, were at stake. And so he went looking for a young, energetic, charismatic American-born conductor. There were few, if any, more energetic or charismatic than 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein--at least, few who had not already been called into the armed forces. Bernstein was still on the home front, 4-F, because of asthma.

Bernstein's job as assistant conductor was to be familiar, just like an understudy in a play, with all of the scores the scheduled conductor would perform that week with the orchestra--just in case, although few could remember the last time a New York Philharmonic conductor has missed a performance because of illness.

In addition, Bernstein was to choose from among scores by contemporary composers--David Diamond, Willliam Schuman, Roy Harris, and others. He'd give the piece a reading in rehearsal. Rodzinski would listen and decide whether to add them to the New York Philharmonic repertory.

Bernstein's residence when he began working with the orchestra was not only convenient, it was also fateful. Some people spend a lifetime trying to get to Carnegie Hall. Bernstein lived there. Bruno Zirato, one of the orchestra's managers, got him a little one-room efficiency apartment in Carnegie Hall itself, room 803.

In the fall of 1943 Rodzinski decided to take a vacation, spend a little time with his goats. The orchestra called in Bruno Walter to conduct seven concerts in ten days. The already legendary Walter was a living connection back to Gustav Mahler, having served as his assistant in Vienna. Since Mahler was and remained one of Bernstein's particular musical gods, the young man was delighted with the choice. Even before the fates conspired to make Leonard Bernstein famous, at 25, on November 14, 1943, he was already pretty excited about what was happening on November 13, 1943. His friend, the Russian-born singer Jenny Tourel, was making her American debut in New York, and she'd agreed to perform a cycle of Bernstein's children's songs called,. I Hate Music.

Bernstein was already setting a pattern of stealingtime from conducting in order to compose. But he'd already written his First Symphony, Jeremiah, and the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano as well as the song cycle.

His parents, Sam and Jenny, were down from Massachusetts for the big event, along with his eleven-year-old brother Burton. The recital was a big success. Even Virgil Thomson liked it. And another critic said that I Hate Music was "witty, alive, and adroitly fashioned." But during the evening Bernstein was distracted, even listening to his own music. Word had arrived that Bruno Walter was ill. And though it wasn't certain, he might not be able to conduct the following afternoon's concert, which was to be a national radio broadcast. And already thoughts of having to guide the NY Phil through the menacing windmills of Richard Strauss' Don Quixote were flitting through Bernstein's mind. After the recital there was a party at Jenny Tourel's apartment on West 58 th St. There was food, drink, Bernstein played boogie woogie improvisations on the piano; but the possibilities, the dangers, Richard Strauss, Robert Schumann, Miklos Rozsa and all of America listening made Bernstein discipline himself for what Sunday might demand of him. Normally he was the last to leave a party. This night he decided to be more prudent. He left between 4:30 and dawn.

After a couple hours of sleep the call came at nine. Walter could not go on. Bernstein would have to conduct at three that afternoon. There would be no time for rehearsals with the orchestra, but Bruno Walter had agreed to go through some of the scores with him, and give him a few pointers. Bernstein arrived at the hotel to find Walter wrapped in blankets. He was "kindness personified," according to Bernstein. He showed him the ins and outs of Don Quixote, where to cut off here, or give an extra upbeat. Bernstein drank it all in like a man lost in the desert. And then all he had to do, according to Walter, was to hang on. Calls went out from the offices of the New York Philharmonic to music critics around the country. This was a radio broadcast, an event of national interest. Radio bound the nation together at the height of the war in a way no other medium could approach.

Bernstein made calls, too. His parents cancelled their train tickets back to Boston. His sister Shirley came down from Mount Holyoke College. The family sat in Carnegie Hall's conductor's box.

All this time, no one bothered to tell Bernstein that the first call from the orchestra had been to Artur Rodzinski himself. He was only four hours away in Stockbridge, and though there'd been heavy snows, he could have made it to New York in time. Rodzinski's immediate reply was, "Call Bernstein. That's why we hired him."

In 1926, Rodzinski's first big opportunity in New York had been when he filled in for an indisposed Leopold Stokowski. Early Sunday afternoon, Bernstein put on the best suit he had, a dark gray sharkskin. He owned a set of cheap tails but he didn't (arcane sartorial fine point) own a cutaway, which was the standard afternoon conducting uniform.

His outfit, combined with his youth and the way he bounded onto the Carnegie Hall podium, caused his young brother Burton to remember that he looked somewhat "less elegant" than all the other players.

After leaving his apartment, Bernstein went down to the Carnegie Hall pharmacy for a cup of coffee. At the counter the druggist asked why he looked so pale. Bernstein later said the druggist gave him two little pills, a red one and a green one. The druggist said, "Before you go on, pop both of these into your mouth. One will calm you down; the other will give you energy." Bernstein's self-appointed Dr. Feelgood was prescribing a combination of a phenobarbital and Benzedrine.

By 2:30 Bernstein was in the wings with concertmaster John Corigliano and the two soloists, cellist Joseph Schuster and violist William Lincer, going over some of the dangerous spots in Strauss' Don Quixote. A few minutes later the players went out on stage to begin their tuning. Then Bruno Zirato made an uncharacteristic appearance to announce to the audience that Bruno Walter was ill and would be unable to conduct. His place would be taken by young Leonard Bernstein, the orchestra's assistant conductor. Zirato's last words to the audience were, "He will seek to entertain you."

All this time Bernstein was standing in the wings, still holding those two little pills. And just before he went out he "flung them as far away from me as I could and said, ‘I'm going to do this on my own.'" And about that same time the radio audience was getting the word on the substitution, and the rundown for the day's program.

With Bernstein on the podium, the orchestra played, and the audience sang, the National Anthem. Bernstein later admitted that his thoughts were not patriotically centered on the Stars and Stripes. He was thinking about the first piece on the program, Schumann's Manfred Overture. "I remember the opening of the Schumann overture," he said. "It's very tricky because it begins with a downbeat rest, and the thing that was obsessing me was that if they don't come in together the whole concert is sunk."

But the potential disaster passed benignly, and after that any nervousness yielded to focus on the task at hand. The Schumann went well, Rozsa's Theme, Variations and Finale elicited four curtain calls for the young conductor, and at intermission when Burton Bernstein saw his older brother, he said he looked "hollow-eyed, like a war refugee in a news photo."

The fairy tale continued according to form on the second half of the program, with the "dangerous" Don Quixote. Bernstein's composing mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, sent a telegram that said, "Listening Now. Wonderful." Artur Rodzinski actually did drive down from Massachusetts in time to hear the second half of the concert. And for Bernstein's part, all he had to do, as Walter told him, was to hang on." The wildest applause, though, the most abandoned cheering, came after the radio microphones had been turned off that afternoon. The United States Rubber Company's time slot on CBS didn't allow inclusion of the final work on the program: Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger. It was at the conclusion of that work that the devotion and the adoration and the love first descended upon the suddenly anointed head of young Leonard Bernstein.

It was a national event. The New York Times ran a headline the next day that read, "Young Aide Leads Philharmonic; Steps in When Bruno Walter is Ill," in the same size type as another that read, "Japanese Plane Transport Sunk." A writer in The Daily News called it an "opportunity like a shoe-string catch in mid-field. Make it and you're hero. Muff it and you're a dope."

This being a fairy tale and all, Leonard Bernstein did everything right on that autumn day. After that, and perhaps for the rest of his life, he confronted a hoary old extra-musical challenge every bit as formidable as the opening to Schumann's Manfred or the tricky parts in Strauss' Don Quixote: how to be a brilliant, serious artist of protean talents, who happens to wake up one Monday morning, and find that he's 25 years old and monstrously famous.

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