Aug. 25 marked 100 years since the late composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth. The centennial has been commemorated globally by concerts, lectures and conversations — including the July 27 evening of “music, anecdotes and remembrances” with Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s daughter, in Chicago — other programs are extending the “Year of Bernstein.”
Locally, between Oct. 5 and 7, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will be hosting “Bernstein in Pittsburgh.” The concerts, under the direction of Manfred Honeck, will feature Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 and Stravinsky’s Suite from “The Firebird” (1919). Also included is Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” a work Bernstein debuted with PSO in January 1944.
“Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 serves as the centerpiece of our program,” said Honeck.
Prior to the October performances, Flavio Chamis, a Pittsburgh-based conductor, and Honeck shared thoughts on the late composer, conductor and musical icon.
“I, myself, feel fortunate to have a special connection to Bernstein, as I played under his baton when I was a violist with the Vienna Philharmonic. I remember several talks that I had with him, and he would listen so carefully and sometimes impart a bit of advice, almost like a father would do,” said Honeck. “It was Bernstein, in fact, who encouraged me to become a conductor, sharing with me the essential advice to follow my heart as I was making my decision to become a full-time conductor and leave my section position in the Vienna Philharmonic.”
Chamis’ recollections largely stemmed from having served as Bernstein’s conducting assistant between 1983 and 1990 — the year of Bernstein’s death — a position requiring Chamis to travel ahead and rehearse with the orchestra before Bernstein’s arrival.
“It was an honor and privilege to do that,” said the Jewish Pittsburgher, who first met Bernstein in Europe nearly a quarter century ago.
“In 1983, I was living in Vienna and my friend and I had gone to see a rehearsal of the Vienna Philharmonic, which Bernstein was conducting,” said Chamis. “After the rehearsal my friend went to talk to Bernstein. I was far away from where they were, but Bernstein looked at me from 80 feet away, from the other side of the stage, and he said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘Flavio Chamis.’”
Bernstein replied, “With that name, you are a Russian Jew.”
Though he was born in Brazil, Chamis’ grandparents had come from Russia. The surname is related to the Yiddish word shames, a term traditionally reserved for the person who manages the Torah and the synagogue.
By 1985, Bernstein and Chamis had developed a working relationship. That year, because the former had always dreamed of seeing Carnival and Chamis was living in Brazil, the two met up in a rented property in Rio.
The house had a piano, recalled Chamis, and among the pieces Bernstein played were Hebrew and Yiddish songs. After he completed “Shalom Aleichem,” the song traditionally sung prior to beginning the Friday evening meal, Bernstein said, “To me this is the essence of Shabbat.”
Chamis preserved the interaction on a recording device and shared audio of it during a talk last weekend at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. Titled, “The Jewish Music of Leonard Bernstein,” Chamis’ presentation included images, artifacts and anecdotes pertaining to Bernstein and his Jewish works.
The connections between the luminary and his religious heritage have been well documented, most recently through an exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History, which utilized Bernstein’s piano, annotated scores, ketubah, Passover seder plate and nearly 100 other items to explore his “Jewish identity and social activism in the context of his position as an American conductor and his works as a composer,” Goodman Media International’s Lauren Hiznay, said in a statement.
Bernstein “was connected to Judaism. He would talk to you about it with a permanence like how a rabbi sees the world. It didn’t matter where he was — Vienna, Austria, Japan — he would have this personality imbued with Judaism wherever he was,” said Chamis.
And regardless of locale, “he would call his mother every Friday night to say, ‘Shabbat shalom.’ I saw it happen many times. Even if he had to conduct, he would call his mother, which he did no matter what, invariably every Friday eve.”
Still, said Chamis, “the main thing is how he approached music. Even if Bernstein had conducted or played the piece many times before, prior to the rehearsal he would start looking at it as if he had never seen it before.
“He would study it as if he were seeing it for the first time.”
Because of this, Bernstein brought a “spontaneous creativity and wisdom” to music, explained Chamis. “When you go back to something you know but discover new things you get more and more into the depth, and I think that’s something you can take not only for music but for life.” PJC