New Book: 'Famous Father Girl': Jamie Bernstein on growing up with the maestro

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LENOX — For Jamie Bernstein, the first-born offspring of Leonard Bernstein, celebrations of the centennial of the composer, conductor and educator's birth is a mixed blessing. In a recently published memoir, "Famous Father Girl" (HarperCollins, $28.99), she describes in searing, intimate detail the challenges and the benefits of growing up in the orbit of a super-nova celebrity many consider the greatest American musician of the 20th century.

Jamie Bernstein is visiting Lenox to promote her book and to host a special evening at Tanglewood. At The Bookstore in Lenox, she will present readings and take questions at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Bernstein's eldest daughter and Boston Symphony Music Director Andris Nelsons will present a special, hour-long performance at 7 p.m. Friday, at Tanglewood, re-creating the maestro's landmark, televised "Young People's Concerts," fondly remembered by many as their entry into music. Jamie Bernstein, who found her true professional calling as an educator when she was 50, will host the event.

In a phone conversation from her Manhattan home, she discussed her return to the Berkshires, where she spent several weeks each summer with her family until her father's death in 1990, two months after his final performances at Tanglewood. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed:

Q: What portions of your book are you selecting for your reading as representing some of your most meaningful memories?

A: I've just started my journey of book readings, so I don't have a pattern yet. But I got a very positive response from an audience at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan to a passage about meeting the Beatles with my father when I was 12. It was overwhelming, they were like gods to me at the time. It's a good thing I didn't faint away on the spot!

Q: Are you including recollections of Tanglewood?

A: I should, but my memories are so complex, tinged with sadness and pain, especially [my father's] last concert with the BSO and with the Tanglewood Music Center "kids." He was so ill, but he would come to life the minute he was on the podium, teaching them. It was difficult, I was so uncertain of who I was at the time, and his brightness at Tanglewood, like the sun, was a little hard to take.

Q: How did your father feel about Tanglewood, where he was in his mentor Serge Koussevitzky's first conducting class in 1940, and where he chose to end his career a half-century later?

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A: He loved it there. His whole life was about teaching and learning, and Tanglewood is the perfect expression of that. To the end of his life, he was always studying and learning. But he was unhappy during his 70th birthday gala at Tanglewood [in 1988]. He had to sit in the audience instead of being on stage. He was not a guy who liked to sit passively, so it was a tough one for him.

Q: It seems so fitting that you're hosting and recreating a "Young People's Concert," following in your father's footsteps.

A: Finding my true calling for education took me completely by surprise. It's a wonderful solution to my lifelong conundrum about being a musician, or not. This will be a brand-new concert, it took enormous pains to devise. I had to juggle requests from Andris Nelsons and from [BSO Artistic Administrator and Director of Tanglewood Tony Fogg], everybody had ideas about what they wanted to include in this concert script. So, it took a lot of hard thinking, and I'm still refining it, condensing and tweaking to the last possible second to make it kid-friendly. It should be a fantastic concert, a lot of things going into it, something for everybody, a bunch of Beethoven and a bunch of Bernstein, both composers who wanted to use their notes to make the world a better place.

Q: What is your role in the Aug. 25 gala event at Tanglewood honoring the maestro on the exact 100th anniversary of his birth?

A: Actually, I'm not participating in it, I'll be sitting in the audience like my dad did in 1988. It's a big splashy concert with lots of LB music and big-time musicians, who can object to that, nobody!

Q: Is it difficult for you to handle all these celebrations?

A: By writing my book, I'm prepared emotionally to go through the centennial. It's really affecting, the sheer scope of the celebration all over the world. We've counted more than 3,300 events worldwide, and the numbers keep climbing. It's very touching and amazing to see that everybody finds something to celebrate with so much alacrity and joy — his music, teaching, activism, recordings, so many different things, so multifarious — theater companies, ballet, opera, universities, libraries, film festivals are having events. He was so multi-faceted, that's why he was so unique. It may have driven him crazy during his lifetime, spreading himself so thin, but that legacy is so extraordinary and marvelous.

Q: Looking back, does the joy of growing up a Bernstein outweigh the challenges?

A: I'm hoping I've conveyed in the book my awareness of how remarkable my life has been, the opportunities I and my siblings [sister Nina, brother Alexander) have had. These things always cut both ways — distinct challenges and absolute glory.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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