A 10-year-old blonde with braided hair sits cross-legged on her father’s orchestra podium as he towers over her, waving a baton.
Five decades later, the blonde is on stage with the same orchestra, remembering her dad: Leonard Bernstein, the late composer and music director of the New York Philharmonic. Wearing a wireless microphone headset and a silver mini-dress, writer-narrator Jamie Bernstein skips up and down the aisles at the Barbican Centre in London, raving about New York and its composers to a youthful audience.
“New York City never sleeps and neither did my father!” she cheers, presenting snippets of Bernstein and Aaron Copland. In between, she sings a few Bernstein bars, and has the orchestra imitate the sound of a truck, bird and tugboat horn.
Jamie Bernstein, 59, is pursuing the musical-education campaign that her father championed through the televised “Young People’s Concerts.” She scripts, narrates and sometimes produces shows with orchestras in the U.S. and beyond, transmitting her love of music to audiences of all ages, and overcoming the “neurosis” she had as a kid at the keyboard.
“I was going to concerts and hearing music performed at its most superb,” she says in an interview at the Barbican. “Then I would go home and sit down at the piano, and these little frogs and spiders would come out of my fingers.”
Fun With Dad
Narrating now allows her to be on stage without having to play an instrument. “The way I add value is not by actually making music myself,” she says. “So I have no anxiety.”
Jamie recalls a “wonderful father” who left the child rearing to his wife Felicia (a Chilean concert pianist) and was “tons of fun to be around.” He never nagged his three children to practice the piano, which they hated doing. “Maybe he just couldn’t bear to be the taskmaster,” concludes Jamie.
“He was basically very encouraging,” she says. “But he was also a competitive person, and I think there was this sense that, ‘Well, I’m the one who can do it really well, and maybe you’re not that person.’”
Leisure time at the family’s second home in Connecticut was spent swimming and playing tennis and word games. “I don’t think I ever felt unwelcome in my father’s presence,” she says.
So welcome were she and her brother and sister, in fact, that Bernstein, who died in 1990, took them on tour and watched them gawk at the perks: the hotel suites, the free nuts, the first-class airline seats, the fancy restaurants.
“My father never really took that for granted himself, and he could re-experience it through us,” says Jamie.
One spectacular suite, equipped with the grand piano that Bernstein required everywhere, was at Paris’s Hotel de Crillon. “It was almost like the garret apartment at the top of the hotel,” recalls Jamie. “And it had its own little terrace.”
Hanging out with his kids, he developed a taste for education. “What gave him the most joy was to share his enthusiasm, especially with young people,” says Jamie. “No matter what he was doing, it was always a form of teaching.”
He took over the orchestra’s longstanding Young People’s Concerts, and broadcast them. “Television and my father kind of came along at the same time, and they were perfect for each other,” she says. When Bernstein was asked shortly before dying what he was proudest of, he cited his educational legacy.
Jamie seems to have caught the bug. It started when she invented a little musical-education course for her daughter’s preschool. She then was asked by her father’s music publishers Boosey & Hawkes to devise a show with the New York Philharmonic focused around her father’s compositions, which became the hit “Bernstein Beat.” She now narrates performances in English and Spanish, mainly, though not exclusively, in the U.S.
Does she think she owes it to her father, or does the narrating come naturally?
“Oh, it’s a pretty natural flow,” she says. “But it is true that I received so many gifts from my father.”
“How do you turn around and give back to the world what you received in your lifetime?” she asks. “I just got lucky that I found a way.”
To contact the writer of this story: Farah Nayeri in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.