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Daughter offers glimpses of Bernstein and his music

03.03.08
Jamie Bernstein
Philadelphia Inquirer

Now that Leonard Bernstein has been lionized beyond all recognition, who can speak for what he truly meant to the American music scene? Probably not the legions of conductors who claim special status as "Lenny" protégés, or the many business associates who still turn out publicity on his behalf.

But the job was done most eloquently Saturday in Verizon Hall by an unlikely figure: Jamie Bernstein, a daughter of actress Felicia Montealegre and the late composer conductor.

I say unlikely because birthright hardly makes one a reliable reporter or master of perspective. Proximity also does not impart the power to proselytize, which, after all, is probably the personal quality that most makes the classical music establishment miss having Bernstein around.

What was so great about Jamie Bernstein's approach is that while she wove in plenty of biography, more of her one-hour musical journey at the Philadelphia Orchestra's family concert was spent talking through the music.

Sitting atop a stool with black leggings and boots slit to reveal pink-striped socks, Bernstein delivered her message with a deep-voiced, bubbly swagger. She told the story of her father's last-minute debut at age 25 with the New York Philharmonic, standing in for an ailing Bruno Walter. She spoke about his physicality as a conductor. "One time in Texas he actually fell off the podium," she told the audience.

With the help of cameras putting the orchestra's work on two large screens hovering above stage, Bernstein would make a point about something going on in the score, and the orchestra, led by Rossen Milanov, would demonstrate. The format would have worked just as well for an orchestra Access concert, a point to which the number of unchaperoned adults in the audience attested.

And then she brought up the hot dogs and hamburgers. The challenge of communicating musical ideas to a general audience is avoiding technical terms while being specific enough to be meaningful. Bernstein explained an unusual rhythm in the Mass by assigning words whose syllables would emphasize the strong beats in a nine-beat measure. Bringing children on stage and giving each a card, she pointed to them as the rhythm played:

HAMburger HOT dog HOT dog HOT dog . . .

By the time she got through this and a few other exercises, hardly anyone might have noticed they had learned the meaning of syncopation, which drum is called a timbale, the proper use of a police whistle in a symphony orchestra, and when it's perfectly polite at a concert to open up and yell Mambo!