Who’s in Town? Jamie Bernstein Reflects on Dad Leonard Bernstein’s Legacy in ‘The Bernstein Story’ at Strathmore

The first time music hit me – and it hit me hard – was when I was seven. My mom handed me Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a bright-red album whose rhythms were as hot as the album cover suggested. I was smitten. I spent the next two years dancing to that music in front of my mirror and putting on countless “shows” for my parents. I’d certainly heard music before West Side Story, but it faded when that Bernstein score connected with my young soul and whispered: “This is everything that music can be!”

Leonard Bernstein. Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
A young Leonard Bernstein. Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

What a joy, then, to recount that story to Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, and to personally thank her for the impact her father had on my life. And I’m not the only one feeling the Bernstein love these days: 2018 is the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and the world is celebrating with Bernstein at 100, a global celebration of Bernstein’s legacy and music.

Jamie Bernstein, the eldest of Bernstein’s three children and an active leader in these celebrations, is in D.C. to narrate “The Bernstein Story,” a February 18th performance with the US Air Force Band at Strathmore. Jamie, who has made a career educating people on her father’s music and legacy, will tell stories about her father to the accompaniment of songs from West Side Story, Candide, On the Town, Age of Anxiety and other well-known Bernstein compositions. (Concert presented by Washington Performing Arts)

Jamie Bernstein. Photo by Steven. J. Sherman. Jamie Bernstein. Photo by Steven. J. Sherman.
Music educator Jamie Bernstein. Photo by Steven. J. Sherman.

Leonard Bernstein became a household name for much of the 20th century thanks to his televised lectures on classical music, and he’s notable for being one of the first American composers to gain worldwide acclaim in an era when “serious” music was assumed to be European. In addition to his compositions, he is remembered for his long tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. His music defied and blended genres and his oeuvre includes musicals, ballets, film scores, symphonic and orchestral music.

No matter the genre, Bernstein’s music has a distinctively “Bernstein sound” that somehow managed to be of his time, and of the ages. Listen to West Side Story and you’ll swear you’re standing on a street corner in Manhattan in 1955, yet there is a freshness and vitality to it that holds up in 2018.

What’s it like to be the daughter of one of the world’s most prolific composers? Here are some of Jamie Bernstein’s observations:

Nicole: What was it like to grow up in the Bernstein home?

Jamie: Life was not boring! Our house was full of friends and family: much laughter and word game-playing, much singing around the piano, much summer fun. And lots of corn on the cob — my father’s favorite.

As we celebrate the Centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, what, in your opinion, is his most important legacy?

His legacy, my siblings and I have come to realize, has four “pillars:” conductor, composer, educator, and humanitarian. So, which is the most important of the four?? Well, I like the way they all fit together… but for what it’s worth, at the end of his life, my father said he was proudest of his work as an educator. And truly, when he was teaching – which was all the time – he was his most complete self. That’s because teaching and learning were one continuous pursuit to him; the minute he learned something that excited him, he felt compelled to share it with someone else.

What sets Bernstein apart from other 20th century composers?

Leonard Bernstein. Photo by Paul de Heuck.
Leonard Bernstein conducting. Photo by Paul de Heuck.

Leonard Bernstein synthesized different styles of music more than any other composer – from America or elsewhere. His combining of blues, popular radio music, jazz, Latin American, rock, 12-tone and more made his music uniquely American.

What is it about his music that is so emblematic of the US, and perhaps NYC specifically, in the mid 20th century?

He was the “lint collector;” everything he heard around him he retained in his amazing brain — and it all got compressed into a fabric all his own, in his own compositions – an amalgam of ingredients, just like America itself.

What is your favorite Bernstein composition, and has that changed from the time you were a child to an adult?

Whichever one I’m listening to at the moment is my favorite! Today it’s “Serenade.” On Sunday it may be “Mass,” when I see it with the LA Philharmonic. As a child, I particularly loved my records of Candide, On the Town, and West Side Story.

You will be narrating the Washington Performing Arts concert at Strathmore on February 18th. What can listeners expect to hear from you?

My narration – and the concert itself – is all about my father’s unquenchable youthfulness. We hear it in all his musical notes. And in honor of this youthful element, all the soloists in the concert will be very young!


Washington Performing Arts: The Bernstein Story, plays one time only, on Sunday, February 18th, 2018 at 4:00 PM at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in Bethesda, MD. Tickets are free but the performance is currently sold out. Stand-by tickets will be offered the day of the performance. For more information call (301) 581-5100 or go online.

STAND-BY LINE: For individuals unable to secure advanced tickets, a stand-by line begins at 3:15 pm outside the Music Center. No lines may form before the designated time. At 3:45 pm, all tickets are null and void, and patrons in the stand-by line will be allowed entry, subject to available seating.

Note: Jamie Bernstein expands on these topics in her forthcoming book, “Famous Father Girl,” published by HarperCollins, due out in June 2018.

An excerpt from Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Televised on CBS from 1958 to 1972, this hugely popular television show brought classical music into the homes of ordinary Americans and inspired generations of musicians and music lovers:



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