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Remembering Lenny

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Remembering Lenny

It was a hot summer evening in Jerusalem in the early 1980s. Hundreds of anxious music lovers were pushing and shoving each other trying to get into Binyanei Ha'uma through the stage door, where invitations and free tickets were usually collected. Suddenly an elderly man all clad in a white tuxedo and with gray hair to match joined the crowd. No one noticed him. He had to wait patiently for several very long minuets until he got in through the door meant for him. Not one of the music lovers who came that evening to hear Leonard Bernstein lead the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, even thought of stepping aside and letting Bernstein pass through. At that moment before the concert the mission was to get in, and even the maestro himself understood. He did not push, but smiled as he saw his admirers using some extra muscles to get in. He understood, and he knew everyone there loved him. Because it was impossible no to love Lenny, as he was known by one and all.

What has not been said yet about Bernstein the man, the musician, the conductor, the man who brought tears to the eyes of millions with his "West Side Story"?

Tenor Peter Kazaras, who created the role of Francois in Bernstein's final opera "A Quiet Place", first met the composer when he was 17. "I was in Harvard with Jamie [Bernstein's daughter] and we were friends, and then one of my best friends was Steven Wadsworth, the librettist of 'A Quiet Place', and I must say none of this helped at all in getting the role. In fact they offered it to someone else, a good singer who had trouble because the guy in the opera had to take the name of the lord in vain. Well, as I do this on a daily basis any way I had no problems to accept it."

Kazaras' audition took place in Bernstein's home in Connecticut. "We took the train there, had lunch, and at four in the afternoon. he woke up. He was very warm and paternal. At around six he said 'let's sing some music,' and he ended up playing the piano for me in my audition." Kazaras vividly recalls they were working on the "flower song from 'Carmen'. As I was approaching the B flat at the end he said I must sing it soft. He said it's not beautiful when it's loud, it's the climax and it must be beautiful as he is baring his soul to Carmen at that moment. Lenny said 'what is beautiful is what is appropriate to the moment,' and believe me I lived my life by this maxim."

Kazaras says that "working with Lenny was wild. With him you were capable of doing things you didn't know you could do. And you must realize that this all happened in the context of rehearsals that began late and lasted hours and hours, and you were thinking I don't have a voice left. But eventually he just let you believe in yourself, he never dictated anything that was his trick. Working with Lenny was like being in one room with the rabbi or with God himself. And you didn't get out saying here I was working with the great Bernstein. You were there just doing what you did and it's not a big deal. Of course it is a big deal but you have to forget that in order to do your job."

Mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, who has sang a lot of Bernstein's music in her career, says that working with him was "like being in the room with the greatest energy I have ever known. It just radiates from him, and he was full with fire, he was very excited about his own work and we were in awe. He was smoking a lot with us singers in the room but nobody dared tell him to stop."

Tenor Neil Rosenshein still regrets saying no to Lenny. "He called me and asked me to record 'Candide' with him and I was really exited, I really loved that role." But the tenor soon learned that Bernstein did not envision him as the romantic lead of his opera. "He wanted me to do the other tenor role, that of the Governor, which is much more dramatic. But I refused. I told him it would break my heart to be there and not sing the music I like so much. So eventually they got Nicolai Gedda to do that role." And Rosenshein admits it was a mistake. "I should have done it, at least for the parties and the joy of being together with him." Rosenshein worked many times with Bernstein and he most cherishes not necessarily the musician but "getting to know the man. When he had concerts in New York he always called me and invited me to the concert and also to the party after that. Lenny is what everybody wants to be. Of course it's nice to sing tenor but it would have been grater to write it."

Today the Bernstein legacy is kept on CDs and DVDs. But there was much more to the man than his music making. And those memories are not in the general public domain. They are the private memories of those who were lucky enough to know Bernstein the man, be with him and learn from him. Because as Rosenshein says "he was the real thing."
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