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Q & A: Leonard Bernstein’s Children Reflect On His Legacy

In honor of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth — he was born August 25, 1918 — cities across the globe are conducting two years of celebratory events. Bernstein’s children, Alex, Jamie and Nina Bernstein, spoke with the Forward about the centennial, and their father’s legacy. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Talya Zax: What are some of the centennial events you’re most excited about?

Alex Bernstein: A happy surprise is how many productions there are going to be of “Candide.” Also, my father’s tremendous work “Mass: Theater Piece for Players, Singers and Dancers,” which I think he put more of himself into than anything else, will be performed a great deal. We’re very much looking forward to those productions.

Jamie, Alexander and Nina Bernstein, pictured in May, 2017. Image by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Nina Bernstein: “Mass” exemplifies our dad’s diversity. It’s genre bending. It has orchestral passages, it has rock-and-roll, it has blues, it has jazz, it has Broadway-style songs and it has ballet. It’s a gigantic and extraordinary piece.

Jamie Bernstein: It was controversial. The Catholic Church was itself of two minds about it. [But] after our father died it was eventually requested at the Vatican by Pope John II.

How will you be participating in the celebrations?

J.B.: I have a memoir coming out [from] HarperCollins in late spring. [And] I’m arranging for the song from “West Side Story,” “Somewhere,” to be offered for free to every youth orchestra and youth chorus in the U.S. and, I’m hoping, around the world. The idea is that this song is a way to express our father’s deepest feelings about the world.

Each of you has professionally engaged with your father’s legacy. What have the greatest challenges and rewards been?

A.B.: I’ve gotten very involved in education, which I think is a result of my father being a marvelous educator. Shortly before he died we got involved in a wonderful project called “Artful Learning”; we work with schools all over the country [to put] the arts at the center of the school’s curriculum. That’s really where my father and I could meet. I’m certainly not a musician. Lord knows I tried.

N.B.: We’ve all inherited the teaching gene. I teach food education to kids in rough neighborhoods.

A.B.: Our father and our mother, Felicia Montealegre, were passionate about social justice. That was something we grew up with; that’s just a part of us.

Are there achievements of your father that you think have been overlooked?

J.B.: “Mass” is on the top of that list. [And] the three of us adore this orchestral piece, a kind of violin concerto, called “Serenade.”

N.B.: The symphonies. He wrote them over the course of 25, 30 years, so they’re stylistically diverse. The third, “Kaddish,” includes a narration our father wrote in which he tussles with God about the state of the world. There have been a number of alternate narrations, including one by my sister in which she tussles with [our] father.

A.B.: There’s going to be new choreography for some of the ballets, which I’m really looking forward to. Also a new ballet of his second symphony, “Age of Anxiety.”

Your father’s work brought him close to some of the most momentous events of the 20th century, from the creation of Israel to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Do you think that impacted his work?

A.B.: He marched, he wrote campaign songs, he would participate in rallies. He gave concerts for peace. Look at “Mass” and “West Side Story.” “On the Town,” which is from [1944], had an interracial cast. During the war, the ingénue — the dancer — was Japanese American.

What are your first memories of your father as a musician?

N.B.: I feel like it happened in utero.

A.B.: My first memories were going, often with Jamie, to the “Young People’s Concerts,” just being around the musicians as they staggered in early in the morning, learning the music.

J.B.: “West Side Story” is our fourth sibling. My first memory of Daddy’s music is listening to that record. Alexander and I were born before Nina; we had a record player with fuzzy decals stuck to the side. We had recordings not just of “West Side Story” but of “Candide,” “On the Town,” [and] “Wonderful Town.” That’s where we first heard our dad’s music, on that record player.

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