Ask Jason

May 17, 2020

Karen asks…

“Did a particular conductor inspire you to pursue conducting? At what point in your pursuit of studying music did you decide to conduct?”

It’s a great question and I hope the answer isn’t boring… because the answer is probably exactly what you might expect. Like so many people of my generation, it was Leonard Bernstein. He inspired me and his performances actually pushed me towards a life in music.

Growing up in Burlington, North Carolina I was fortunate that the local library, May Memorial Library, actually had a really good record collection. Checking out records there was my main connection to classical music. I remember getting a record of Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven’s First Symphony on Side A, with George Szell and Cleveland doing Beethoven’s Second on Side B. When I heard the cellos and basses ripping up those scales in the last movement of Bernstein’s recording, I remember getting chills and thinking, “I want to play cello in an orchestra when I grow up.”

A year or two later I was to play the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in North Carolina All-State Orchestra. I went to the library, and the recording they had of the piece was Bernstein’s with the New York Phil. I remember the cover with everyone in their tuxes on the stage of Carnegie Hall and Bernstein looking so dashing. When the bombastic ending finished, I thought that I didn’t want to just do the cello part… I was in love with all the parts! It was a light-bulb moment when I realized I probably wanted to be a conductor.

From then on I started to gobble up Bernstein’s recordings. His records may or may not be to your taste, but it’s hard to deny that most of them are about as emotionally charged as you get. You’d have to look hard to find a dull moment, especially in his best years.

On the other hand, I personally think that he was a great musical architect. Mozart talked about being able to “see” a whole piece all at once. When you’re performing a piece you can get caught up trying to make these amazing musical moments and it can be easy to lose the narrative thread. As emotionally charged as the individual moments are in those records, I was always amazed by how he rarely lost sight of the big picture. He was a natural dramatist; he had a sense of how to push and pull the music to keep the story moving along.

A great example is his early recording of Schumann’s Manfred Overture. It’s a piece that’s really made or broken by how good the performance is. On his record, the pathos, heroism, the anxiety… everything is turned up to 11. But for my money, the pacing and structure was incredible from a piece that doesn’t hang together easily. I remember listening to that record in college and by the end of the 13 or so minutes feeling like I’d been on a roller coaster. (It is on YouTube, but the digital remaster of this doesn’t do the original LP justice. Use headphones or speakers!)

After college I fell in love with Bernstein all over again when I discovered that he was this amazing “ambassador” for classical music. Classical music sometimes gets a bad rap, especially from people who haven’t spent much time with it. A man once said to me, diplomatically, “you know how people think of it as ‘Grandma music...’”

Bernstein had a way of peeling off the “Grandma music” stereotype, to show people how a great piece should knock your Grandmother’s bloomers right off… He had this amazing ability to help people develop a love for great music by helping them see how it was relevant to their lives. That’s the main thing I’m trying to do with my life, and I’m still in awe of his ability to make “converts” to classical music.

Of course it’s partly because he was such a great teacher. He could explain a musical concept or discuss a Beethoven Symphony just as well as he could perform it. Honestly his Young People’s Concerts were for 8-12 year-olds, but if you watch them on YouTube I think you’ll find they’re pretty sophisticated. And if you’ve never watched his Norton Lectures at Harvard – also on YouTube – they’re fascinating. He discusses Noam Chomsky’s theories about universal grammar and explores what might be “universal” in the supposedly universal language of music.

So there’s the answer! And as a little aside from the recordings I’ve already mentioned you can check out… I always love people’s “Top 10” and “Desert Island Disc” lists. If I’m trapped on a desert island with only a few records, I want one of them to be Bernstein’s recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth. The whole record is great, but in particular the last movement, “Der Abschied,” “The Farewell,” with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Vienna Philharmonic is amazing. If I get stuck on an island contemplating my own mortality, that’s about as good a soundtrack as you’re gonna get. (And maybe Dark Side of the Moon.)

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