Thursday February 22, 2018 10:46 am

FanFaire celebrates LEONARD BERNSTEIN


- by Hildegard Behrens

It is an honor and a challenge for me to write some introductory words for this wonderful volume on Leonard Bernstein. As many of his friends and contemporaries knew him much longer and perhaps better than I did, I would like to limit myself to my most powerful reminiscences of the years we played together- the last decade of Bernstein’s life, during which Thomas R. Seiler also captured his photographic images of their travels together.

I was first personally introduced to Bernstein at a dinner in 1980 after one of his concerts in Munich. The evening was aglow and when he told me that he was planning to do Tristan with me I was so delighted I could hardly speak. The work began between Christmas and New Year’s. It was an enormous project with three acts spread over January, April and November. That I would give birth to my daughter Sara that same year, just six weeks before the third act, was unbeknown even to me as we started Tristan.

In rehearsal at the Herkulessaal (Munich)

In rehearsal at the Herkulessaal (Munich)

The live concerts in the Herkulessaal with Bernstein’s much beloved Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were broadcast simultaneously on radio and television, as well as being recorded for video and LP. We singers stood on a high platform behind the orchestra. Each of us had a whole bouquet of microphones in front of us and was expected to gesticulate a little as well. An expectant atmosphere weighed on the entire event and on each individual, but it soon became clear that the higher the voltage, the better the maestro felt.

Bernstein once said,

“When I conduct Beethoven, I don’t care whether I conduct the way Beethoven would have conducted. What’s important is that I’m convinced that what I’ve done is in the spirit of Beethoven, even if I know that Beethoven would have done it differently. One is not a slave to a work of the past, but a creator here and now!”

Hildegard Behrens and Peter Hofmann: Bernstein's Isolde and Tristan

Hildegard Behrens and Peter Hofmann: Bernstein’s Isolde and Tristan

In the same breathtaking way, Bernstein took possession of Tristan. As it was Peter Hofmann’s debut in this role, the maestro was touchingly attentive in his efforts to help him past all the precipices and chasms of the part. Yet in so doing he was forced to restrain his own urge to identify with the Tristan role. He seemed to try to compensate for this by drawing all the more on the depths of Isolde’s character. He sang and hummed my cantilennas along with me, his mind focused inwards. As we came to Isolde’s central phrase, “Er sah mir in die Augen,” he brought the orchestra almost – as it seemed to me – to a halt through an excessive rallentando. I went on the offensive and protested: “Lenny, you’re not leaving me anything for my ritardando! I’m Isolde, you don’t have to be everyone!” He was a “zealous god,” and after this first act, a slightly quarrelsome atmosphere smoldered between us. After one rehearsal, Lenny sat down at a harpsichord that happened to be there. Dressed in a white bathrobe wih a cigarette holder in his mouth, he made a fascinating foray into the harmonic structure of the Tristan score. Unforgettable!

A Sprinkling of Irreverence

During a concert tour in 1981 to perform his Kaddish, Lenny and I flew together from Munich to Zurich. While Lenny, in his elegant cape with his white silk scarf and silver cigarette holder, took his seat in the front row of first class, I made my way through the curtain into the economy section. Everyone seated already, the curtain suddenly opened and Lenny, peeking through, called out in his smoky voice: “What’s the matter, darling, can’t you afford to fly first class?” Swallowing my pride, I answered with a laugh: “Sure I can, Lenny, but you can’t afford to fly economy!” The curtain closed quickly and we took off.
-Hildegard Behrens

In Vienna, Munich and Bregenz I performed his third symphony, Kaddish, together with Bernstein himself, who corrected my Hebrew unrelentingly. He had premiered this moving piece with his deceased wife, Felicia Montealegre. Lenny accompanied me on the piano at several charity galas in New York in which we performed his own vocal works or Marlene Dietrich’s evergreens from Der Blaue Engel. Lenny would be dressed in a sassy white tuxedo with glistening Lurex trousers and patent leather buckled shoes and I would be in Marlene-look with a midnight-blue evening dress, hat, cigarette holder and rhinestone-studded high heels. We had a load of fun; indeed, parties were held whenever the occasion called for it, for example after one wonderful performance of West Side Story on Broadway to which Peter Hofmann and I were invited by Lenny.
As I leaf through this volume and look at these so very characteristic photographs, I think of the stories from Bernstein’s life that he liked to tell late at night. The intoxicating effect of life and profound melancholy sapped the substance of his volcanic temperament. Ruthless exploitation of his character deeply scored the bedrock. I can remember how he told us in New York that a team of doctors was attempting to teach him how to sleep again.

Like almost no one else, Bernstein bequeathed to young people the Olympian fire, the flame of musical passion. His open-mindedness (“There is no such thing as U- and E- Musik, only good and bad music!”), his own compositions, his great admiration for the Beatles – all these confirmed his “credibility” and youthfulness of heart to the younger generation. In 1997, when I performed a lieder recital with Christoph Eschenbach in Japan at the Pacific Festival – which Bernstein had initiated in 1990 for young musicians from throughout the world (and at which he allegedly once more felt happy and alive shortly before his death) – we played one of his works for voice, piano and cello (“Dream with Me”) as part of the encore. The first cellist from the Vienna Philharmonic (Friedrich Dolezal) had come over from another auditorium to do this encore with us after his own concert had finished. When I announced the piece, a cheer went up in the young audience. The spark of the Bernstein name had spontaneously combusted!

Note: Photos and text reproduced with permission of the publisher Edition Stemmle, the US Distributor Abbeville Press, and Ms. Behrens, who wrote both the German and English text (Text: pp 18-19, Photos: pp 21, 24, 26).


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