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Classical music

Bernstein at 100: daughter Nina joins Hong Kong celebrations of music legend’s legacy

He headed the New York Philharmonic and wrote the hit musical West Side Story, but Nina Bernstein and HKPhil music director Jaap van Zweden say the conductor and composer should be remembered for much more

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 7:05pm

Leonard Bernstein, one of the most important musical figures of the 20th century, was a “tremendous conductor” and his recordings with many international orchestras are still regarded as the gold standard of the classical repertoire, according to daughter Nina Bernstein. He was also a man who wanted to make music for the masses by broadcasting concerts on television.

“Because my father was so telegenic and irresistible to watch, he became sort of this honorary dad for a whole generation of people,” she says of his influence on young Americans who grew up watching his music programmes.

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Bernstein is in Hong Kong and Macau as part of the celebrations of her father’s centennial, and will appear in public talks and forums organised by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Asia Society and the Academia de Musica S. Pio X in Macau.

Though today the enduring association of Bernstein as a composer for musicals is hard to shake, thanks to his highly popular West Side Story, the centennial celebrations offer the public a chance to remember his many other contributions to music.

Offstage, Bernstein says, her father played a leading role in motivating many to become singers, players and conductors.

“Many people came up to me and told me that if it hadn’t been for my dad, that they would not think to pick up the clarinet or the French horn, or never thought to sing in a choir,” she says.

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Born in 1962, Bernstein is the American composer/conductor’s youngest daughter and an avid promoter of her father’s musical legacy. She says his love for the music he wrote and studied was infectious and enabled him to connect with audiences in concert halls and on their sofas.

“Yes, you work hard, yes you are dedicated, and you’re committed but it has to come from a place of love because without that you are just beating time,” says Bernstein.

She remembers how her father was always open to answering questions and teaching her and her older siblings about the music he was studying.

Even at an advanced age, his love for music did not change or falter: “He was constantly discovering things and he was happy to share them with us.”

She also remembers how he would entertain dinner guests at home on the piano, playing old novelty pieces.

This autumn, music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra Jaap van Zweden will follow in the footsteps of Leonard Bernstein by taking up the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein took on that role six decades ago and would stay as its music director until 1969. He was to be the troupe’s Laureate Conductor for another 21 years.

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Coincidentally, it was Bernstein who gave van Zweden his first taste of conducting, in 1990, when the Dutch violinist was with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Van Zweden says Bernstein was extremely demanding in rehearsal but during a concert performance he’d just let the orchestra play. “That was one of his secrets, that really inspired me.”

Bernstein was also totally dedicated to the preparation of his repertoires.

“He was that guy, who was just curious about everything and thorough and meticulous. It’s something we should learn from,” says his daughter.

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How his legacy will continue to be curated and shaped in the 21st century remains to be seen. What is certain is that the world has much to be thankful for. Leonard Bernstein, or ‘Lenny’ as some knew him, changed the lives of many and brought joy to their hearts through his human touch.

Two upcoming Bernstein concerts by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra:

West Side Story in Concert, Jun 29-30, Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Rd, TST, HK$220-$480 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2721 2030

Celebrate Bernstein On Broadway! Jul 6-7, 8pm, Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Rd, TST, HK$180-HK$480 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2721 2030

Nina Bernstein will appear in Leonard Bernstein – Musical Dynamo at the Academia de Musica S. Pio X on June 26 between 6.30pm and 8pm