Joe Alterman interviews Bill Charlap on Leonard Bernstein


JA: Bernstein's done so many different things. What's most influenced or most resonates with you about what he did?

BC: Well, what most resonates about Bernstein is I suppose his American-ness in a certain way. Bernstein was really the first highly influential maestro to be respected worldwide by the European classical establishment for one thing. As a maestro, as a conductor. But Bernstein was thoroughly Boston and New York and America. Very interesting because unlike Gershwin who wrote songs and was a theater composer long before he wrote any classical music, Bernstein wrote symphonies and chamber music and all kinds of things about that before he ever wrote a popular song. But his music is imbued within American sound. It comes through jazz, through Gershwin's music, through Copland's music, and also as even part Stravinsky and Mahler and lots of other things. There's a visceral quality to Bernstein that is unique in that he embraces such a world scope of music, but at the essence, he's an American musician.

JA: Well, where do you think the Jewish part fits in?

BC: Well, I think that that's all over his music, too. There's a prayer in it. There's a sense of prayer. There's a sense of expansiveness. There's a talmudic type of knowledge, and a wit to anoint and lift and educate. All of those things are in Bernstein's music, too. He was, in a way, as famous an educator as he was a conductor or a composer or a pianist or a theater writer. He was a polymath, you know? It's incredible how deep his intellect was and used to be. I think he may have been maybe the greatest professor of music that we've ever had, and at the same time, one of the most charismatic performers all across the board.

JA: One of the challenges in coming into this job is seeing so many composers that say they're American composers and that for the Jewish thing, they just happen to be born Jewish.

BC: I think Bernstein was very proud of his Jewishness. I think it was very important to him, and I think that although he was in every way a citizen of the world, let's just step back and think in an even bigger way. You know what it's about out here in jazz and in everything? It's about being yourself. Stepping into your own shoes and really being yourself. Not trying to be something that you think other people want you to be, but also embracing everybody and celebrating the individuality of the people around you. I think that those are human ideals. They are also Jewish ideals.

JA: I read an interview with Gershwin where he said he really wasn't influenced by his Jewish background. It's tricky to know if that means, when he says something like that, if that's just redefining what it meant to be Jewish in America or if it's shunning your Judaism in a way. I don't know.

BC: When was the interview made?

JA: I honestly don't know.

BC: I think it's very important to get into the context of time. I think that that's really keenly important. And to remember there was almost a he didn't want to be maligned for his Jewishness. He also was probably quite proud of it, but he was also living in a time, after all, think about historically. For instance, just what was going on in the '40s in Germany. Of course. So, I think in some ways, he was just trying to say, hey, I'm a person. I don't want to be seen as a Jewish person anymore than somebody walking around saying, 'I have a lot of black friends.' It's an idiotic comment. Completely 100% non-humane comment.

Maybe that might be a piece of what it is, because I actually do think that ... a part of my thesis on what makes Gershwin's music so special and what makes, for instance, "Porgy", so special is that it is, in a way, a love affair that celebrates the relationship between African Americans and Jews. There's something there. And there's certainly something in ... Bernstein was raised with Jewish ideals and by a very Jewish family, so I think that's important to Bernstein. He liked stepping into the shoes of exactly who he was.

JA: Any favorite Bernstein anecdotes or stories?

BC: I don't know if I have any one story. There's just everything that Bernstein did was in italics. He really lived. He was truly the meaning of the term larger than life. And I think I don't know if I have ... I think there are many anecdotes of how Bernstein was. Here's one that I really love though, actually, now that you ask. 'Cause I'm thinking of it. Bernstein went to conduct Mahler who, of course, he championed and who was Austrian. For Bernstein, a New York Jew, to go to Austria to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic playing Mahler, that was a big deal. And a courageous deal, and a hugely important thing in Bernstein's life. So, what he said to them, and there's even a film of this, and they had an attitude about it, too. He goes in there and he says, "This is your music," and they almost put their heads back and their backs go up. And then he says, "I also believe it's my music." And their backs go up even further. Then he says the thing about Bernstein that was so brilliant, "But it's more your music." That's where they kind of decide with a nod, okay, we're going to play for him. He had a way of seducing people's souls so that he could bring people together. I think that that speaks very well.

JA: I'm looking at the new edition of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival as more of a Jewish contributions to music festival, and I was curious if you had a quote about Jewish contributions to music in America.

BC: Well, this is the part where I become Gershwin. I feel a bit like, look, I'm very proud of the idea that there is a Jewish imprint on American musical theater, of course. Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rogers. But does that make Cole Porter not an important contributor? And for that matter, Cole Porter wrote 'You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to' and I don't think I can think of a song that is more Jewish sounding. So, it belongs to the world and it's all about celebrating the essence of our own culture and realizing that to have that is a gift, and as Dizzy Gillespie said to Phil Woods, "You can't steal a gift."