[Leonard Bernstein’s first appearance in Rochester. Rochester Times-Union, 1/30/45. Except where indicated, images provided by Michael Nighan]
It seems like every few years the board of directors of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra goes through an audition process to find a new music director. And each time they do I’m reminded of the guy they turned down for the job back in the 1940s. A young man who went on to become arguably the most famous American composer and conductor of the 20th. Century. Leonard Bernstein.
As WWII was raging, the turbulent Spanish conductor, Jose’ Iturbi, in an eight year stint as the RPO’s music director during which he’d brought the orchestra radio broadcasts and recording contracts as well as a national reputation, had nevertheless also been ruffling more than a few feathers of the RPO’s staid board both by his volatile personal style and by what they regarded as his undignified decision to appear in Hollywood movies (to say nothing of his allegedly pro-Axis political views). Calling it quits in 1944, Iturbi went on to make repeated appearances on the silver screen, and the RPO board went on to look for a new music director. Enter Leonard the Wunderkind.
The 25 year old Bernstein had emerged on the musical scene on November 13, 1943 as suddenly as a bolt of lightning when, while serving as an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, he was called in at the last moment to substitute for guest conductor Bruno Walter who’d come down with the flu. Without any rehearsal of the program, Bernstein picked up his baton, walked out before the Carnegie Hall audience, most of whom had never heard of him and, with several million more Americans listening to the broadcast on their radios, became an overnight sensation as a result of his interpretive conducting style. Following this triumph, Bernstein began receiving offers to be a guest conductor from orchestras in America, Canada, Europe and Israel. Then, in December 1944 came a call from Rochester.
Following Iturbi’s resignation, the RPO had begun an international search for his replacement. Over time ten men would be asked to appear as guest conductors, giving the board the opportunity to evaluate them in action.
Sharing the bias, not uncommon among patrons and board members of American orchestras, that European conductors were preferable to American ones, all of the Rochester Philharmonic’s music directors had been Europeans. Indeed, among the men being considered as Iturbi’s replacement, only Bernstein and one other candidate were American-born.
Arriving in Rochester on Jan. 30, 1945, Bernstein already had extensive musical experience under his belt. Guest conducting at Tanglewood, the Boston Pops, the New York Philharmonic, Les Concerts Symphoniques de Montreal, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Boston Symphony (where he was also under consideration as a possible new music director), he’d already written the score for the musical “On the Town”; composed a ballet piece, “Fancy Free”; and composed and recorded “Jeremiah”, his first symphony. But as with all conductors, young or old, Bernstein wanted to lead an orchestra of his own. And the well-respected Rochester Philharmonic looked like a good possibility.
In contrast to his future reputation as a musical innovator, the February 1 program for Bernstein’s first concert at the Eastman Theatre was tradition personified. The Three B’s; Bach (in this case Carl Philipp Emanuel, not Johann Sebastian), Beethoven and Brahms. But although he later denied that the program was “stuffy”, it may be that the selections hadn’t been his alone. For in a reprise of his 1943 stand-in appearance at the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein’s Rochester debut was as a substitute for Sir Thomas Beecham, another RPO conductorial candidate, who’d originally been scheduled for the concert.Nevertheless, as in 1943, Bernstein’s conducting took music critics by storm. Writing in the Times-Union, A. J. Warner exclaimed:
Mr. Bernstein’s genius as an executant brought such youthful exuberance, such superb rhythmic pacing and so firm a control of his orchestra, that the surge of Brahms’ mighty music assumed a kind of pristine quality…It was as if Mr. Bernstein, with the vision of youth, found new features in a beautiful face which he proceeded to delineate with fascinating facility and penetration. The orchestra caught the fire of his enthusiasm and responded to it with exciting effect.
During 1945, while the RPO board continued to screen candidates, Bernstein continued to conduct other orchestras, notably becoming music director of the newly-formed and financially shaky New York City Center Orchestra. In November he returned to Rochester, this time to conduct the RPO in his own symphonic composition, “Jeremiah”. Prior to the concert, Bernstein spoke before the Junior Chamber of Commerce, expressing the view that America’s musical organizations, while solid, could no longer survive based on patron support alone and would need subsidies from all levels of government to remain viable.
Later, talking to the press, he explained how Eastman School of Music faculty member, Dr. Margaret Grant, had helped start his career back in 1941 by introducing him to Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic who became an important influence in his musical life.
While Bernstein’s November 15 concert garnered overall positive reviews, praise for his “Jeremiah” symphony was a bit left-handed, with one reviewer opining that, “effective as the symphony often is, Mr. Bernstein made a far greater impression as a conductor last night than as a composer.”¹
In January 1946, Bernstein returned to the Rochester Philharmonic, appearing in the dual role of conductor and solo pianist for Ravel’s Piano Concerto and for another Bach piece (this time Johann Sebastian, not Carl Philipp Emanuel), the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Unfortunately, the next day’s reviews of his conducting were not effusive. Norman Nairn of the Democrat and Chronicle took issue with the way Bernstein handled being both conductor and performer;
When anyone attempts the dual role of conductor-pianist in Rochester, there are bound to be comparisons with the spectacular success achieved by Jose’ Iturbi….I’m not attempting to disparage
Bernstein’s efforts. But this dual-role stunt to go over big must have an electric spark, which it didn’t have last night….The first movement (of the Brandenburg) sounded pretty much as if a metronome had been started and never stopped. Too mechanical and monotonous in other words…. the (Beethoven) scherzo was taken at such an ungodly fast tempo that one wondered how the horns ever got through it…
Another year passed, and in February 1947 a press release was issued by the executive director of the Rochester Civic Music Association (which at the time oversaw the RPO’s operations), to the effect that, “We are not prepared to make any definite statement or announcement concerning the new permanent conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Nor will such announcement be made before the end of the Philharmonic season.”Despite such public statements, rumors were swirling that Bernstein and Austrian conductor Eric Leinsdorf were finalists for the music director’s job. Leinsdorf had conducted the RPO for four concerts in the fall of 1946 and had taken the orchestra on a regional concert tour. But now it was Bernstein’s turn to go into overdrive.
In quick succession, on February 27 Bernstein conducted the RPO with guest violin soloist Isaac Stern. Then on March 3, suffering from a cold and heavily medicated, ² along with 85 members of the orchestra, he piled onto the train for a six state, eight city concert tour, including Pottsville and Bethlehem, PA; Poughkeepsie, NY; Providence, RI; Keene, NH; Pittsfield, MA; Hartford, CT, and Ithaca, NY, returning to Rochester less than a week later.
Back at the Eastman Theatre, on March 13 Bernstein conducted the RPO through his ballet composition, “Facsimile”. Also on the program was renowned soprano, Jennie Tourel. Although there was high praise for Tourel’s singing, Bernstein once again was faulted for rushing the orchestra.
Finally, on March 27 Bernstein, once more at the keyboard, conducted the final RPO concert of the 1946-1947 season. An all-Beethoven program before a sold out house. Reviews were off the charts.
Then, four days later, on April Fool’s Day, stating that, “We have been much impressed by his profound musicianship and fine conducting. His keen musical insight and devotion to the art of music are outstanding”, the RPO board announced their selection for the new music director.….Erich Leinsdorf.
Why not Leonard Bernstein? At this late date who really knows? Perhaps it was simply the trustees’ decision to hire yet another European- born and trained conductor. Perhaps, with the Cold War beginning, they thought it would be unwise to appoint a music director who had recently given a talk on the topic of “The Soviet Influence in American Music” at the First Conference on American-Soviet Cultural Cooperation.³ Or perhaps it was something else.
In 2016, New York City Center’s publications editor, Matt Weinstock wrote about what might have been that “something else” behind Bernstein’s failure to be appointed to head the RPO (and also his failure to be selected to conduct the Boston Symphony):
It had been a long hustle for Bernstein. He’d been a national celebrity…but as far as leading a symphony of his own, it was no dice. He’d been rejected by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Rochester Philharmonic, for nebulous reasons that Bernstein privately chalked up to anti-Semitism and homophobia. On some level, it was a matter of propriety. What staid symphony could embrace a conductor who danced on tabletops, doted on boogie-woogie, and composed haunting elegies for the family dogs?”(4)
But Bernstein got the last laugh on Rochester, the RPO and Leinsdorf. While he went on to become a cultural icon, Leinsdorf, after eight years as music director and despite the RPO’s national reputation, quit the orchestra over concerns about what he saw as Rochester’s insular and stagnant musical culture. Later asked about his reasons for resigning, Leinsdorf was quoted as saying, “Rochester is the best disguised dead end in the world”.
It’s unclear whether Leonard Bernstein ever returned to Rochester, either to conduct or as just a visitor. But following his death in 1990, his daughter Jamie came to town when the RPO staged a 2009 celebration of her father’s life and legacy on the occasion of what would have been his 90th. birthday. Ten years later, in conjunction with orchestras across America and the world, the RPO participated in a “Bernstein Centennial Celebration”.
1. A 2019 video of the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra performing Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” on the 100th. anniversary of the composer’s birth.
2. Writing to a friend, Bernstein complained that, “I’m beginning a week’s tour with the Rochester orch. and I’m up to my neck in penicillin. Overworked I guess, and inevitable consequences”.
3. Not as far-fetched for the times as that may sound. The lifelong ultra-liberal Bernstein was a member of the Progressive Citizens of America, an organization then coming under the scrutiny of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee for their alleged communist ties. To make matters worse, in conservative Rochester it probably didn’t help that the Rochester Chapter of the PCA held a public reception for Bernstein less than a week before the RPO board announced its decision.
4. This reference is a bit anachronistic as the three elegies composed for the family dogs were not published until 1948.