Posted by Jay Livingston
(No sociology, just what Chris Uggen calls self-indulgery.)
Leonard Bernstein was born on this day in 1918.
Earlier this summer, I was walking around Tanglewood on a weekday. The Koussevitsky music shed - the open-air concert venue – was deserted, so I walked up onto the stage and stood on the conductor’s podium where decades earlier I had seen Bernstein stand and conduct. (I’ll spare you the photo. I was not wearing my tux.) But that was not the first time our paths – Lenny and mine – had crossed.
In the early 1950s, Bernstein was a visiting professor at Brandeis. No doubt he felt at home in a department that was eager to go beyond the bounds of what traditional music departments did.
Some years later, when I was a sophomore at Brandeis, I had a campus job in the music building. A few days a week, at 5 p.m., I would play records (this was long before Spotify, long before CDs) for the students in the Opera course. I mean, I would play the records if any students came to the classroom in the music building, which they rarely did. I think a couple may have come when the topic was Don Giovanni; that’s the only reason I can think of that I have some familiarity with “Madamina,” the openng aria. We never got beyond that.
The classroom had a piano at the front for the instructor to use – a Baldwin baby grand – and sometoimes I would sit there and do my inept version of playing piano. I’d never had a lesson, and I played a sort of jazz by ear. (I recall that Horace Silver’s “St. Vitus Dance” was one of the tunes I was trying at the time.) One day late in the semester, I noticed a small metal plate, about 2" x 3" attached at the right edge of the piano above the keyboard. I read it. It said something like, “This is the piano that Leonard Bernstein learned to play on as a child, and is donated by his parents. . . .” I played that piano more frequently for the rest of the semester.
Here’s the Bill Evans solo version of “Lucky to Be Me,” from “On the Town” (1944 – i.e., when Lenny was 26). Evans takes some liberties – modulating the last eight bars to A♭instead of F the first time through. But Bernstein’s own chord changes on the bridge are incredible as is the melody – very chromatic and hence not easy for singers.