Jamie Bernstein knew her father was famous when she tuned in to “The Flintstones” and watched as Fred, Wilma, Betty and Barney went to see Lenny Bernstone at the Hollyrock Bowl.
Until then, Leonard Bernstein was just her dad, no different from any other New York father who got up and went to work everyday.
After her otherwise ordinary father surfaced in such a meaningful pop-culture reference as the popular TV cartoon, Jamie Bernstein looked to him with a new kind of respect.
“West Side Story” was one thing. But “The Flintstones,” well, that was something she could brag to her friends about at school.
In the next week, the Portland Symphony Orchestra celebrates the legacy of Bernstein, whom PSO music director Robert Moody considers the greatest musician of the 20th century, with a pair of concerts at Merrill Auditorium that will feature his daughter. On March 16 and March 18, Jamie Bernstein will narrate her father’s Kaddish Symphony, in which the composer questions and challenges God.
Also on the program is Bernstein’s “Chichester Pslams” and “Simple Song” from his Mass.
Bernstein wrote the Kaddish Symphony in 1963, and dedicated it to his friend John F. Kennedy, who has just been assassinated in Dallas as Bernstein was finishing his symphony. He premiered it December 1963 in Tel Aviv with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The American premiere followed in January 1964, with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
With her narration, Jamie Bernstein, who lives in Manhattan, will assume the role intended for her mother. Bernstein wrote the piece with the idea that his wife, Felicia Montealegre, would perform the narration. She did so many times, including at the U.S. premiere in Boston.
In Jewish tradition, the Kaddish is a liturgical prayer in praise of God. In Bernstein’s piece, the narrator questions and challenges God, creating tension. If God is so powerful, why do we suffer on earth? The narrator blames God for man’s lust for death, though the piece ends with joy and hope.
In a phone interview, Jamie Bernstein said her memories of this piece, which premiered when she was 11, are difficult.
“I remember my brother and I had a really hard time watching our mother do this narration,” she said. “It was very melodramatic. It’s a rather serious, difficult piece, and really not for kids. As a result, all three of us kids never really warmed to the Kaddish Symphony.”
That changed only with the past decade or so, when Jamie Bernstein fielded a request to narrate. She flat-out refused.
“The first line of the narration is, ‘Oh, my father.’ And I thought, ‘What? No way.’ It just felt all wrong.”
She reconsidered, and relented – with one condition. She wanted permission to rewrite the narration but made that request with certainty that her father’s estate would refuse it.
To her surprise, she was granted permission and dove into the piece.
“It turned out to be a fantastic journey, because I had to really study it. And I discovered what a fantastic piece of music it really was,” she said.
At the time that he wrote the Kaddish, Bernstein was struggling to be taken seriously by the classical music establishment. He achieved fame for writing the music to “West Side Story” and other Broadway shows, but he did not want his legacy defined by that success.
At the same time, the classical music establishment and academics tended to look down on music that was overtly melodious. Serious composers were expected to write within certain tonal structures. Bernstein and his contemporaries wanted to do things differently and still be taken seriously.
We witness his struggle in the Kaddish Symphony, Jamie Bernstein said. By the end of the piece, the composer satisfied his desire to write flourishing melodies, but it’s a slow process that builds with each movement.
As she dug into this music, Bernstein said she learned more about her father and his writing than she ever had before, and she found new respect for him.
“You can just hear him wrestling with this issue,” she said. “The narration itself is a struggle with God. It’s an argument with God about the suffering and the difficulty of being a human on this earth. In my narration, I have added a second layer of argument with my own father, my biological father. I ask him, ‘Why are you making everything so difficult? Why not just write the tune you want to write?’”
Her journey has led her closer to her father’s heart and mind. She calls the experience “hugely rewarding.”
She has performed the narration only a few times, maybe a half-dozen in all. One of those was with Moody and the Phoenix Symphony.
Her performances with the Portland Symphony Orchestra will mark her first professional experience in Maine.
Moody believes that Leonard Bernstein is the single most important musician of the 20th century. Moody had hoped to study conducting with him at Tanglewood, in Lenox, Mass., where Bernstein taught and performed. Bernstein died in 1990, before Moody had the chance.
Still, the 46-year-old music director believes Bernstein is the conductor most responsible for Moody’s own interest in classical music. Many of his peers feel the same way, he said.
“We would not exist without Leonard Bernstein,” Moody said.
Bernstein was a world-class conductor, composer and pianist. But perhaps his greatest achievement was spreading the message of music to a generation of young people through his Young People’s Concerts, which were televised on network TV. He did 53 of those concerts over this career.
When hired as music director in Portland, Moody’s highest priority was to raise money for a similar series of introductory family concerts. That series, called Discovery Concerts, is a direct nod to Bernstein’s influence and legacy, he said.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: