Austria, Bayreuth, Beethoven, Cong Ca Phe, Famous Father Girl, Hanoi, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Serge Prokofiev, Vienna, Vienna Philharmonic, Vietnam
“There are no coincidences.” – Leonard Bernstein
A day before concluding my eleven week residency this April with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, I did something routine before I leave Việt Nam. I went across the street from where I stay to my local Cộng Cà Phê, which has hands down the world’s best coffee.
“Cho anh cà phê nâu đá,” I ordered in Vietnamese, which frankly I don’t need to do anymore. The young and attentive staff greet me, often generously coach me in Vietnamese pronunciation each morning and usually just show up with my order. Being older in Việt Nam has its advantages. “Hello, grandfather!” is their normal salutation.
As with most mornings, my coffee appeared and I went through my long distance habits. Checking email, seeing if anyone is looking at my blog (thank you readers, this is always a good part of the day), wondering what messages might be on Facebook, and maybe scanning various newspaper headlines to see if the world still exists. In other words, I get my day started like the rest of us. Even checking waves on Messenger.
“Jamie Bernstein is waving at you! Wave back!”
I sleepily kept scrolling through other messages, but then it dawned on me quickly that Jamie Bernstein was the Famous Father Girl daughter of Leonard Bernstein. I better take another look, shaking my head while swallowing another strong drink of cà phê nâu đá to assure myself I was truly awake and not hazed by some Vietnamese dream state.
I said to myself “What the hell, send her a reply message.” My outgoing “Hello, nice to meet you” note went out with its familiar deep blue background highlighting what I’d written.
Sure enough, the time change gods being perfectly aligned, she wrote back immediately.
Staring at my screen with some momentary disbelief, I thought, “I’m at a f@#$ing Cộng Cà Phê in Hà Nội writing back and forth from Việt Nam with Leonard Bernstein’s daughter?” Because any American musician who says they weren’t influenced by her father is lying to themselves.
And as we wrote back and forth, she was as big a mensch as her dad. I told her of the Tanglewood summer romance still going strong thirty nine years later between Jan Karlin and me and of our current ongoing work with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. I suspected that would get her attention and it did. After we got to know each other, she invited me to contribute a memory to her father’s website in honor of his centennial. Perhaps you might take a look at leonardbernstein.com if interested and go to the Memory Project to find my recollection, one of many.
I lost track of what I was going to do that morning before leaving Việt Nam after a very productive and long stay. Instead I started reflecting on the influence her dad has on my life, always foundational even when it is not in the foreground of my activity.
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before,” Jamie’s father had written at a dark time in American history. Being in Việt Nam, with 1968 fifty years in our collective rear view mirror, made recalling his inspirational motto hard to dismiss from my memory.
My wife Jan and I try our best to live this motto. A theme with many variations, his invocation to action can’t be realized by simply trying harder or practicing longer. Jan and I believe that as American musicians there is no other place where his inspiration is more important to animate than in Việt Nam.
Writing to Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie from Cộng Cà Phê in Hà Nội gave me the inspiration to look back at the major influence her father had on my life. Nothing is random, and she is the source of the quotation that begins this post. As my first exchange with Jamie came to a close, I reflected in a new way at what Jan and I were doing in Hà Nội and where our inspiration had originated. It reached all the way back to when we met at Tanglewood in 1979, a summer not anchored but defined by a performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony with her father Leonard Bernstein.
To understand Bernstein’s influence on me, it’s necessary to change the scenery. Growing up in Hollywood encourages me to make a written cinematic flashback, from Việt Nam in Southeast Asia in 2018 to Vienna in Europe in 1977-78. Yes, it’s always remarkable to me the similarity of letters in the names of these two places close to my heart.
”We always have great concerts with Lennie. He knows the score and therefore we pay attention,” answered my teacher in the Vienna Philharmonic, Roland Berger, when I asked him why their concerts together sounded so special. I retired the French horn in 1998 to devote myself to conducting new music, a very positive decision. However, the lessons learned finding my musical voice through this inspiring instrument have stood me in good stead for my entire career.
I had a determinative year of study in 1977-78 in Vienna, becoming fluent in German with classes at the University of Vienna (language is a theme to reappear a little later) while studying with Roland Berger, auditing numerous performances in the pit of the Vienna State Opera and concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic. I would be shaped that year by the yin and yang of composer/conductors of classical music, Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein.
While I was in Vienna Bernstein would perform and record the symphonies of Beethoven and I luckily observed them at work. After the season concluded in Vienna, I went on to Bayreuth in June 1978 to observe Pierre Boulez rehearse an epochal production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (which will soon receive its own post). Every student of music should skip class and observe rehearsals of the best musicians possible is my advice for long term success!
My golden nuggets of memory from these experiences? I’d have to disappoint you if you think there must have been tremendous moments of endless revelation. I’ve needed years to reflect and locate the similarities of what I experienced watching both Bernstein and Boulez. The differences seem now superficial and simply elements of temperament and personality. Their intent? That was where I still find the inspirational similarities of these obviously polar opposite influences.
They both simply rehearsed things. Relentlessly. Other conductors, not so much, and never with their confidence. Both shared staggering internal knowledge of the score.
A big Bernstein Beethoven rehearsal memory? What stands out is his endless and adamant insistence in the 2nd Symphony on the articulation of a dotted eighth note sixteenth figure in the first movement. Inspiration? NO. Hard work. Period. It was a break at that rehearsal where I would meet Bernstein on the stage of Vienna’s Musikverein, an unforgettable moment, one that would recapitulate forty years later at a Cộng Cà Phê in Hà Nội when I would begin corresponding with his daughter.
Not in my wildest dreams could I have predicted that a year later I would go from that 1978 Viennese introduction to being his principal horn in 1979 for Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony at Tanglewood. I had received a letter of introduction from Roland Berger to take to him, and at a rehearsal break I approached the podium. Bernstein saw the stereotypical bright orange envelope of all Austrian correspondence, opened his arms and said “This is from Roland! Come here!” Someone took a photo of that moment (cameras were not so ubiquitous in the 1970s) as he glowingly read the letter and remembered meeting me at the Musikverein, even grumbling about how the recording of Fidelio had gotten way from him (everybody, Bernstein included, had a terrible cold that winter in Vienna). I also asked him for suggestions about Prokofiev.
“I love how you’re playing. Don’t change a thing,” was his encouragement. I did my best to believe him.
However, as the peformance approached, I had a genuine attack of nerves in the late afternoon before the concert. I now know this was a good thing. I was learning to face serious musical responsibility for the first time. At one rehearsal break, a friend in the orchestra probably summed up all of our feelings remarking “I just realized who told me I was behind…..good God!”
But the concert? Once Bernstein came on stage in his cream colored Nehru jacket, he looked at us all with tremendous confidence before we started that beast of a composition for every instrument. The non-verbal message was crystal clear: We are doing this together. His first upbeat was the slowest longest deepest breath possible. I now know he was telescoping the entire symphony in microcosm, an easy sentence to write that I’ve needed a lifetime to learn. His breath control put our entire orchestra in the palm of his hands.
My afternoon nerves vanished. Those nerves gave way to an energy filled up with simply hearing the music I was playing, breathing deeply for every phrase. NOTHING ELSE! I think all of us found our musical voices that night. In retrospect, Bernstein could be described as the best teacher we’d ever had.
And that influence would extend over our entire careers, I certainly feel it even today. Jan and I would years later be rehearsing in the Brahms Saal of Vienna’s Musikverein with our friend Martin Haselböck, as we were playing in his period instrument orchestra the Wiener Akademie. At the end of one rehearsal, we heard a lusty “Heraus!” And there was Leonard Bernstein, hustling us off stage so he could have a private rehearsal with Krystian Zimmerman, but not without big hugs of surprise remembering our Tanglewood performance in 1979, the last time we would see him. His presence is always with us.
There is one more Bernstein influence that is important to my post and by necessity will bring about an edit back to Cộng Cà Phê in Hà Nội.
I always asked Roland Berger about his thoughts on the great conductors he worked with in the Vienna Philharmonic. Many lessons would go like this. “Jeff, you must always play from the foundation of precise articulation that we’ve discussed, but at the same time pay attention to the unique point of view of the conductor. So let’s play this Brahms phrase again and I’ll mimic Bernstein’s movement.” And then von Karajan, Solti, Maazel, Boulez, Furtwängler, Knapperstbusch, Böhm, Klemperer, Richard Strauss (his father often played with the composer of Der Rosenkavalier), on and on. After going through the same phrase with a multitude of interpretations I had learned life lessons still active.
”So what has stood out to you over all the years you’ve been in the Vienna Philharmonic?” Roland thought pensively and then answered “One thing absolutely unique about Lennie. After his first series of concerts with us, he returned speaking completely fluent German. We had never, ever, seen another conductor master German quickly like he did, and it created a tremendous amount of trust and respect.”
Timing is everything. All these memories returned as I reflected with my Vietnamese morning coffee on a new friend in the United States. One day later and I’d have been at the airport.
“There are no coincidences.”
As I concluded my initial contact with Jamie Bernstein at my Cộng Cà Phê in Hà Nội, I eventually did get to work on what I thought I’d be doing that entire morning. After all, I had routinely started my day simply fortifying myself with best in the world coffee before flying home after a long residency with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. Remembering her father’s Prokofiev upbeat at Tanglewood in 1979, the inspiring influence of Leonard Bernstein was right there, channeled through the energy of writing back and forth with his daughter from Việt Nam in 2018.
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
I was studying Vietnamese.
Best, best, best,