Bernstein: The maestro who made music for the millions

November 13, 1990|By Glenn McNatt

DURING intermission at a concert in honor of the late Leonard Bernstein in Washington last weekend, the woman sitting behind me recalled her childhood memories of the great American conductor and composer:

"Every Saturday my mother made us watch Bernstein's 'Concerts for Young People' on TV," she said. "Bernstein on Saturday TV, then church on Sunday morning and listening to GlennMcNattthe opera over the radio Sunday afternoon. That was how we got to hear good music where we lived."

She had grown up in Canada during the 1950s, she said, "which probably was before your time." I was tempted not to disabuse her of this flattering perception, but honesty finally compelled an admission that I, too, had watched Bernstein on TV as a child.

Presumably opportunities in Canada to hear live performances of the classics were more limited than in New York City, where Bernstein lived and worked. And yet I suspect the cultural distance between New York and, say, Winnipeg was not much greater than that separating Lincoln Center in mid-town Manhatten from Harlem uptown, where I spent my formative years.

Bernstein bridged the gap between both with an apparent effortlessness and grace that in retrospect was truly astounding. He was classical music's first great impresario of the television .. age, and he and the new medium seemed made for each other. The short man with the mellifluous voice and leonine mane almost single-handedly introduced an entire generation of youngsters to the genius of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

At that time there lived in Harlem a piano teacher named Carmen Shephard, a graduate of New York's Julliard School of Music. To this distinguished matron (for some reason she had never married and was universally referred to as "Miss Shep") I was brought at the tender age of seven for instruction in piano, music theory and ensemble playing in what Miss Shep called her "rhythm band."

Miss Shep, of course, never achieved the renown showered upon Bernstein. And yet, in her own way she performed much the same exemplary role in our humble neighborhood that Bernstein was then playing worldwide over the airwaves. She lived and taught in a tidy Victorian brownstone house on 147th Street between Convent and St. Nicholas Avenues, a part of Harlem's once storied Sugar Hill district that has since fallen on hard times.

Miss Shep's pupils included a number of talented boys and girls who subsequently went on to successful professional careers in the music business. I, alas, proved only an indifferent piano student. (However, I did eventually find a niche as a castenet and handbell player in the rhythm band.) Yet my lack of aptitude at the keyboard in no way excused me from the obligation of watching Bernstein's concerts for young people on Saturdays, a duty both Miss Shep and my parents considered an indispensible civilizing influence.

And so it was that I, along with my more musically inclined pals from the neighborhood, were compelled to spend a portion of innumerable Saturday's absorbing this infusion of high culture presided over by the tall man with the mellifluous voice and leonine mane broadcasting from a studio a few subway stops away in mid-town Manhatten.

At the time, it would have been inconceivable to us that this unlooked for experience might in later years form a touchstone with others of our generation across the globe. The thought that some other mother in a cow town on the plains of Manitoba might be making her little girl do exactly the same thing at the same time would have struck us as a ludicrous.

Yet last weekend there I sat chatting with the lady from Winnipeg, and we both remembered as though it were yesterday the thrilling "Dum-dum-dum-da!" of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on the show Bernstein devoted to that great work. How `f Bernstein moved his whole body, arms, legs and wild mane all together, literally levitating off the podium with passion as he conducted the orchestra. Who knew then that it was something that we would forever after?

Leonard Bernstein has gone to that great concert hall in the sky. And I sometimes imagine that, while he's up there, he may run across Miss Carmen Shephard, who in her own way did as much to spread the musical ideals Bernstein espoused as the Maestro himself. Perhaps they will sit down and play something together -- Miss Shep always was fond of duo piano arrangements. That faint, almost dream like "Dum-dum-dum-da!" I sometimes hear in my head of an evening may be a sign that, indeed, they are already at it.

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