What’s it like to live in the shadow of arguably the most celebrated composer/conductor of the 20th century?
In her new book “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (HarperCollins), Jamie Bernstein offers an intimate and intriguing portrait of her late father and the unique challenges that come with being the eldest daughter of Leonard Bernstein.
On May 21, Sinai Hospital and the Sinai Mitzvah Foundation will present “Famous Father Girl: An Evening with Jamie Bernstein” at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills. The evening will include music and storytelling by Bernstein and special guest Darin Atwater, a Baltimore-based composer and founder of the Soulful Symphony orchestra.
Jmore recently spoke with Bernstein, 67, about her memoir, her career as a writer, filmmaker, concert narrator and broadcaster, and the experience of “growing up Bernstein.”
[Editor’s Note: After this interview was conducted, Jamie Bernstein announced she needed to cancel her appearance at the Gordon Center.]
Jmore: Tell us about your own musical journey.
Bernstein: I was musical but when it came to making music with my own body, I was very neurotic. I heard music performed all the time at the optimal level, so I would feel so discouraged. I hated piano lessons, and I hated practicing. But I loved music, and what became my way into music was through an old guitar I found in the closet.
At [a Connecticut-based] JCC, we learned the song ‘Easy Rider.’ So I played for my father and he said, ‘Oh, that’s a blues. It’s three chords.’ He was like a teacher faucet or a teacher firehose. He never turned off.
I felt like [the guitar] gave me the Rosetta Stone. I could play all the music I heard on the radio and I could make the music my own.
How did your father feel about pop music?
My father loved pop music and we shared a love of the Beatles. Every time a new album came out, I would run to the record store to buy it. I’d slam it on the turntable and we’d listen to it. “Norwegian Wood” would come on and he’d say, ‘Hear that? That’s a sitar.’
Eventually, my father used pop music to illustrate [musical points] at his [televised] Young People’s Concerts. At one concert, he used a Beatles song to explain sonata form — the A-B-A structure. My father observed that this was a great way to get the kids interested. He would sing with his terrible voice and the kids loved it. It was also a great message for parents that it was OK to love all kinds of music. He wasn’t making a value judgment about one kind of music being better than another.
How did you wind up having a career in classical music?
After college, I tried to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter so I went to L.A. and finally made a record. The record company listened to it and announced they didn’t like it. I’d just gotten married at the time so I said, ‘To hell with it. I’ll just focus on the marriage and start a family.’
So first, I had my daughter, Frankie, and then my son, Evan. Weirdly, on my son’s first birthday, my father died [in 1990]. At that moment, my brother and sister and I realized we had a new occupation. We needed to take care of my father’s legacy.
Later on in the same decade, an interesting inquiry came from my father’s music licensor. Would we be interested in developing an educational concert just like the [Young People’s Concerts] he used to do, featuring Bernstein’s music? For some reason, my hand went up. I volunteered. But of course, I needed help. So I went to Michael Barrett, my father’s assistant conductor. I said, ‘You be the musical expert and I’ll write and narrate.’
We called it ‘Bernstein Beat’ and it was all about rhythm. The kids loved it and it was quickly in demand by orchestras all over the U.S. Pretty soon, I was on the road talking about music. This turned out to be the answer to my conundrum. I was even living a musician’s life — touring, hanging out with musicians. I just wasn’t making music with my own body. It was like cutting off the ailing limb to allow the rest of the organism to thrive.
Was your dad a hands-on parent?
Yes. He wasn’t involved in the nuts and bolts of raising us. But he loved having us around and playing with us. We never felt unwelcome. He invited us on tour with him. I remember going on the road with the New York Philharmonic.
Can you describe a family meal at the Bernstein household?
Noisy! Everybody talked at the same time. There was lots of laughter, singing — we were happy. We loved being together in one big blob making a racket, preferably in the summer with lobster and steak and corn on the cob.
What was your mother, actress Felicia Montealegre, like?
My mother was an amazing woman. She had to be to live with my father. She was very beautiful, witty and had a real sense of style. Everyone always wanted to come to our house. Our friends adored her.
It was calamitous that she died so young [in 1978]. She was only 56. She had breast cancer that metathesized to her lungs. Those were really hard years. I was 25 when she died. My sister, Nina, was just 16.
Did Judaism play a role in your family?
My father’s parents both emigrated from the Ukraine. His father, Sam, came to the U.S. when he was 17 without a penny and his mother came when she was 8. Sam started a hair supply business. In every spare moment he had, Sam was in synagogue.
Synagogue was the first place where my father heard music. But he married my mother, who was raised Catholic in Chile, and in our household it was mix-and-match. We lit Chanukah candles and decorated a Christmas tree. We still have rip-roaring seders. My brother had a bar mitzvah, but my sister and I didn’t.
You can really explore my father’s spirituality through his music. He’s talked about a crisis of faith and he uses music pieces like “Mass” to express spirituality and metaphorically to shake his fist at the heavens — ‘If you’re up there, why are we in this situation?’
What would your father say about today’s political climate?
Oh my God! He was a lifelong activist and humanitarian. He was always doing whatever he could. Starting in the 1940s, the FBI was keeping track of Leonard Bernstein. He worked for civil rights, against the Vietnam War, for AIDS awareness.
In the 1980s, through the Freedom of Information Act, he read his FBI file and found out it was 800 pages long! He knew his phones were probably bugged. He didn’t care. Neither did my mother. If they were around today, they’d be slapping their foreheads in despair.
What is your documentary “Crescendo: The Power of Music” about?
I became fascinated by this global movement [started in Venezuela], El Sistema Youth Orchestra for Social Change. The program goes into inner cities and teaches kids to play music every day after school. Not only did it give them a safe place to be, they are literally harmonizing with others, creating beauty.
So I was talking to my friend Elizabeth Kling about it and she said, ‘Let’s make a film about it!’ So we decided to follow a few kids — two from Philadelphia and one from Harlem (New York) to see how the program affected them. …
Baltimore was one of the first cities in the U.S. to try it. [Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director] Marin Alsop gets props for that!
For information about “Famous Father Girl: An Evening with Jamie Bernstein,” email firstname.lastname@example.org.