Arts & Culture

What’s it like to watch ‘Maestro’ as Leonard Bernstein’s daughter? ‘Surreal.’

Leonard and Felicia Bernstein in the 1970s with their children (from left) Alexander, Nina, and Jamie.

Photo courtesy of the Bernstein family

3 min read

Alum recalls dad’s love of Harvard, learning as biopic draws Oscar noms

Before Leonard Bernstein ’39 became the legendary composer and conductor portrayed by Bradley Cooper in the Oscar-nominated biopic “Maestro,” he studied and played music as an undergraduate at Harvard.

“Our father gave education the highest value in life, and he was very proud to be a Harvard alumnus,” said daughter Jamie Bernstein ’74. “His admiration of all things Harvard extended to his sartorial choices — bow ties — and perhaps even his way of speaking. Given that his own parents immigrated from Ukraine, we can surmise that Leonard Bernstein’s long Boston A’s gestated in Cambridge.”

“It is more than surreal to watch a pair of actors half one’s age, playing one’s own parents.”

After Harvard, Bernstein — who was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts — studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Tanglewood Music Center, his daughter said. He made his debut conducting the New York Philharmonic as a fill-in in 1943 and was appointed its first American-born music director in 1957, the same year one of his best-known compositions, “West Side Story,” debuted on Broadway. In 1972, Bernstein was appointed as Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. During his term he delivered six lectures known as “The Unanswered Question” that touched on music history, theory, philosophy, and linguistics.

“Both of our parents imbued us not only with a love of music, but also a love of words and an overall love of learning,” Jamie Bernstein said. “We were given to understand that it was OK to choose a life in the arts, that we needn’t feel compelled to be a lawyer or a doctor. However, our father’s mother, Jennie, so revered the medical profession that after her eldest son received an honorary degree or two, she would address her letters to him with ‘Doctor Leonard Bernstein.’”

“Maestro” depicts the life and career of the late Bernstein through the lens of his marriage to actor Felicia Montealegre Cohn, portrayed by Carey Mulligan. Their relationship was a point of public intrigue as Bernstein grappled with success, sexuality, and raising a family.

Jamie Bernstein, whose teenaged self is played by Maya Hawke in the film, describes the experience of watching her family history play out on screen as “surreal.” Some of the movie’s scenes were shot in the Bernsteins’ actual home in Fairfield, Connecticut, adding to the eeriness.

“It is more than surreal to watch a pair of actors half one’s age, playing one’s own parents,” she said. “It’s also very dreamlike to see one’s own house, full of relatives and friends — but just as in those dreams, it was those people and yet somehow not those people.”

The movie recreates Bernstein’s 1973 concert in Ely Cathedral, in which he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection.”

“We can’t get over the beauty and audacity of the Mahler 2 finale,” Jamie Bernstein said. “The whole thing! We hope viewers will want to know a lot more about Mahler music — just as we hope the Bernstein-laden underscoring will inspire viewers to listen to much, much more Bernstein music.”