Home ➨ Silver Sonata, Memories of a Musical Life: New York, the Met, and Leonard Bernstein: Read the First Chapter
© Copyright 2018, Jacquelyne Silver and Richard Platt
"All God’s children are lost… but only a few can play the piano."
~ Art Tatum
Prelude: Upper West Side Story
Mitzvah: Aladdin’s Cave
Pianoforte, Con Amore
Piano Mavin: The Brass Ring
The Farm and the Cadillac
The Technician and the Poet
Chutzpa: Competitions are for horses…
Mishegoss: "Come on, Sweetheart, lemme hear those dulcet tones."
The Kasatsky: White Russians
Kvetching in Paradise: Juilliard
New York Overture
Opera Bouffe: Rondo a la Touring
Mishpocheh: "We don’t take your kind in this building."
Those Were the Days
A Night at the Opera
Primo Uomo: The First Tenor
A Little Midnight Music
Mishegoss: "This is completely meshugge."
The Bigot and the Vampire
That French Whore From Marseilles
The Music Mensch
The Ray and the Licorice Stick
Kaddish: Where Words Fail…
Coda: A Songfest Appendix
The greatest antidote to stage fright, or so I have found, is a white-hot, towering rage. It was, therefore, a stroke of great good fortune that the most important interview of my professional life began with a single word, "No," uttered with unfathomable contempt. The interviewer was Leonard Bernstein.
My journey to his door had begun less than two weeks before. It was late September. There was a bracing chill in the air. Autumn had come early to New York. My phone rang. It was Charlie Wadsworth, the head of The Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. Charlie was from Newnan, Georgia, which, cherishing his southern drawl, he pronounced Joe-jah. Himself an accomplished pianist, Charlie got the finest performers in the world for the stage at Lincoln Center. He was one of the most highly-respected musicians in New York, and deservedly so. Charlie had married my friend Suzie Poppkin, now Susan Wadsworth, the founder of Young Concert Artists, which was celebrating its sixteenth birthday.
"Hah, Honey! It's Charlie."
I wouldn't have guessed.
"You want to work with Leonard Bernstein?"
I thought I hadn't heard right, and I was in no mood to be fooled with. I was packing to go to Newfoundland, to perform six concerts as accompanist for tenor Gene Tucker. It was late. I was still getting my music together, practicing, luggage open, half packed, knowing I would need to stay up most of the night.
"I said, ‘Do you want to work with Leonard Bernstein?'"
This was 1977. Bernstein was at the height of his fame. He owned New York. Would I want to work with him? Nah.
"What's going on, Charlie?"
"Well, he's looking for an Assistant Conductor for a new project, and he needs someone who can read his manuscripts, work with him, and coach some Metropolitan Opera singers. I said I had the perfect someone for him. I know you'd be perfect for it. You're the best sight-reader I've ever seen, and I've seen everybody."
"What's the music like?"
"Hard, Honey. Real hard. It's Lenny's original music. And he wants to meet right now; yesterday."
"Charlie, I'm leaving for Newfoundland tomorrow morning."
"Jeez. Well hell, Honey, who with?"
Gene was an accomplished professional. One didn't just back out of a professional tour.
"When are you back?"
"Hon, do you want this job?"
"It's Leonard Bernstein, Charlie."
"Right then. Let me make a phone call."
He hung up.
Five minutes later the phone rang again.
"Hi, Honey. I'll messenger over the scores to you tonight. Take a look. See what you think and call me."
Half an hour later the scores arrived: full-size, black orchestral scores for six singers and orchestra, twelve songs in all, and all in Bernstein's hand: chicken scratch, virtually indecipherable. Originally commissioned for America's bicentennial, but not completed until now, their lyrics were taken from thirteen poems, all chosen by Bernstein, each reflecting an aspect of the American Experience. Their working title was Songfest.
In addition to being almost illegible, they were diabolically, impossibly difficult: very modern, almost atonal, and without melody, thus with little logical continuity from one note to the next, and splattered with sixty-fourth notes, as if from a shotgun. To work as an assistant conductor I would have to know this music backwards, as well as the composer himself knew it. Worse than that, I'd have to be able to play the parts of all six singers simultaneously with the orchestral accompaniment in rehearsal, flawlessly – Bernstein was famously intolerant of anything less than perfection – and queue the singers' entrances with my third hand while playing. I would also have to learn this music in ten days, with no piano, sitting in the back seat of a rental car.
Well, I thought, whatever it takes, it takes. It's Leonard Bernstein; end of story. I'll do it if it kills me. It might. But now I still had to pack.
I called Charlie.
"Hah, Honey. Did you have a look?"
"I took a peek."
"Well, what do you think?"
"Charlie, I'll look at them in Newfoundland."
"But we've got to set up an appointment now. With Lenny it's got to be now."
"Okay, I'll meet with him, but these are real bitches to play, Charlie."
"Ah know, Hon, but if anyone can do it, you can," he drawled, ever the Southern Charmer. "I gave you a big build-up. Fine, then. I'm delighted. I'll call Lenny and set up an appointment. When are you back?"
"A week from Sunday. Air Canada. I get in about midnight, should be home about 1:00 AM."
"Okay, Honey. Call you right back."
He called back in less than ten minutes.
"All set, Honey. Bernstein lives in The Dakota. You've got an appointment for the Monday morning after you get back, 9:00 AM."
"Charlie! You need to give me at least another day to catch up and practice!"
"Sorry, Honey. He wants to meet right away, and he doesn't like to wait."
"Don't I get a say in this?"
We both broke into nervous laughter.
"Have a good trip! Bye-bye!"
Life in the Big Apple: speed up, stand aside, or get run over.
I looked at my open suitcase and the unpacked clothes strewn across my bed. The thought began to settle in: Leonard Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein? Leonard West-Side-Story Bernstein? Leonard Maestro-of-the-New-York-Philharmonic Bernstein? Yeah, that Leonard Bernstein. I'd worked with some of the greatest musicians in the world, but to be a colleague of Leonard Bernstein's, this was the top of the mountain.
Moving now in a haze of unreality, I packed my performance clothes and put the scores in my travel tote, slightly afraid that this was all a dream and that the scores would vanish, or that if I looked at them too long I'd lose my nerve. Then I went into my piano room for my old travelling companion, Kathy Keyboard.
Kathy was a full-size eighty-eight-key keyboard, with a spring mechanism that attempted to mimic the touch of a piano. She folded in the center and fitted into a travel case just larger than that for a trumpet. I used her to practice when, as on my upcoming tour with Gene, no rehearsal time had been scheduled: unpack in the hotel room, set up the music stand, do scales to keep my fingers nimble, learn new music for upcoming performances. She was invaluable, as I was working and learning new music all the time, running a teaching studio, coaching singers at The Met, touring as an accompanist and soloist.
Portable practice keyboards were getting rare even then. I purchased Kathy used from the Ford Piano Company in New York. She had been owned by someone who played piano on ocean liners, and was pasted over with stickers from ports all over the world. Now, in the digital age, Kathy would be regarded (if anyone even knows such things exist) as not merely pathetically quaint but quietly useless, literally, for Kathy Keyboard was silent. You had to hear the music in your head, and Kathy was going to help me learn some of the most complex and difficult music I would ever play.
Gene met me at the plane. I told him about Charlie's phone call. His blond eyebrows rose above his boyishly handsome face.
"He'll be lucky to have you, Jacqui."
A good guy, Gene.
On the plane I put down the tea tray, opened my valise, and took out the Songfest manuscripts for my first in-depth read.
Oh my God. What have I done? What have I done? This wasn't Richard Rogers. This wasn't Climb Every Mountain, or even West Side Story. This stuff wasn't just virtuosic, it was inhuman. Nothing was commonplace. A 4/4 time signature, four beats to a measure, all quarter notes? Not on your life. Try a 15/5 time signature, or 9/8. There was nothing you could tap your toe to. It was a cacophony. Not one resolved note. This was another world; an overwhelming world. I told myself, it's music. It's still music. This is what you know. This is what you do. Just pick it apart, one instrument, one voice at a time.
We landed at St. John's in the early afternoon. The capitol of Newfoundland and Labrador Province, St. John's is a magical, storybook seventeenth-century port city of rainbows and pastel-colored row houses dominated by a twin-towered neo-Gothic marvel, St. John's Cathedral. The surrounding countryside is the kind of place you'd expect to bump into an elf after dark, and the other-worldly impression is in no way diminished by the fact that St. John's time is one and a half hours ahead of New York time.
Gene and I performed our first concert that night to an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd, then ran straight back to the hotel because the folks with the vacuum cleaners were charging in, so we couldn't stay and practice. The next morning Gene saw Kathy Keyboard in the back seat of the rental car and the manuscripts under my arm.
"Guess I'll be doing all the driving," he said.
He guessed right. Since we had to drive across the island, I rode in the back of the car, Bernstein's songs and my silent keyboard spread on my lap. I learned every note of every score, singing under my breath, conducting six singers and an imaginary orchestra, learning the poetry, considering the musical interpretation it would require, matching the music to the singers Bernstein had selected. They were all consummate professionals that I knew well from The Met, but all had strengths and weaknesses that I would have to showcase or accommodate, then balance with one another, and I had to do all of this while ignoring the stunning Canadian landscape as it disappeared behind us.
No doubt I was driving poor Gene out of his mind, though he was very good-natured about it. Gene never complained. He was a professional, and he knew what it would take to learn Bernstein's scores. I stayed up most nights well past midnight, tapping away in silence. Then, of course, with each performance I'd have to indulge in a little musical schizophrenia, putting Songfest utterly out of my head and playing accompaniment for Gene: Purcell, Vaughan Williams, Handel, Massenet, Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, and Bizet. Then it was a reception with cookies and cake, a little wine, and Canadian small talk:
"My eyes nearly froze shut when I got off the plane."
"Yeah, that can happen."
Then, back to the hotel, hunched over with cold, and off early the next day, through postcard towns bedecked with rainbows. Or I think they were. I usually had my head down. I might not have seen anything but for Gene.
"Jacqui, look to your left."
"LOOK TO YOUR LEFT! It's like something out of a Celtic myth. I ordered it just for you."
"Thanks, Gene. Humm…dah dah dah dahda hum bum bum – BAH!"
Gene and I had a ritual. Each morning, as we loaded the car, he'd glance at Kathy Keyboard and say with a knowing smile, "Are you going to do that again?"
By the time we returned to St. John's for the flight home, Gene had heard so much of Songfest that he had begun humming along; a testament to his fine musicianship, or perhaps to my obsessive conducting.
I staggered into my apartment late in the evening, exhausted. That's what I remember most about that night. Not my anxiety about the next morning, just the deep fatigue, and the worn, warm chocolate-brown pajamas I was so grateful to climb into: luxuriously, deliciously warm. Then I saw my face in the bedroom mirror: drawn, haunted, almost translucently pale. I got into bed, conducted the manuscripts one last time, and slept fitfully. When I woke it was still dark: 4:00 AM. I was too jittery to go back to sleep. I had the meeting with Bernstein at 9:00 AM. There was just time enough to review the songs one last time.
I showered and dressed for the meeting – pencil-slim, skinny black jeans, black silk blouse, silver belt buckle, silver jewelry, black heels, not too high. (My feet could never take them, and they made pedaling difficult.) I was fit, and very couture: elegant, understated, confident. As Maria Callas said to me, "It's a look. You have a look. A lot of people don't have a look. You have a look." A bit of foundation to hide the dark circles under my eyes and I was ready. Showtime.
Bernstein lived at the Dakota, 72nd and Central Park West, New York's most conspicuous address since John and Yoko moved in upstairs. It was walking distance from my apartment at the Dorchester, three blocks up, and three blocks over. Nice walk. The kind of walk you'd take with the dog. I arrived at that dark, brooding, gabled Gothic wonder, announced myself to the doorman - "Oh yes, Ms. Silver, you're expected." - rode the old hydraulic elevator to Bernstein's floor and rang the doorbell at nine o'clock on the dot. I thought, I've just got to get through this, then I can go home and sleep. Looking back, I think my deep fatigue helped. I was simply too tired to be terrified – until the door opened.
The Maestro himself answered the door. He was just below average height, about 5'5" or 5'6". In his hand he held what I would come to learn was his preferred morning beverage, a scotch and milk, "for the calcium." His ever-present cigarette hung precipitously from his mouth. He was dressed casually, but expensively: khakis, loafers, leather belt, long-sleeved polo shirt, and a red bandana tied around his neck, the kind you'd put on a dog. He wore red or blue. That day it was red. It was "a look."
I'd heard the cliché "larger than life" often enough, but this was the hard fact behind that overused phrase. To be met by that face, that great, beautiful, chiseled leonine head, those steel-gray eyes, that charisma that could fill the largest concert hall, and all of it landing directly on me, was literally staggering. This was someone that existed just beyond human experience, another order of being entirely.
It's peculiar what crosses your mind at a moment like this. The first thing I thought was, you look just like Leonard Bernstein.
"Good morning, Maestro. I'm Jacquelyne Silver."
We shook hands. I returned his strong grasp with equal strength.
"Yes, I know."
His voice was contemplative and quiet, his accent a practiced Boston Latin.
Then, silence. Slowly, very slowly, his eyes worked their way down to my shoes, then back to my silver belt buckle, then up, stopping with an agonizing delay to look into my eyes again (I almost flinched), then up to my perfectly done hair, and back to my eyes, as if he were assessing me for a photo shoot, all the while jiggling the ice in his glass. He seemed puzzled. He must have been expecting someone with her hair in a bun and a sensible cotton print dress buttoned to the throat, and here I was all elegant, totally faputzed. Yet I had his scores under my arm, and Charlie Wadsworth had sent me. Without releasing my eyes from his, he took a drag from his cigarette, pulled it from his mouth, and blew smoke past my face and into the hallway. His head moved side-to-side, slowly, deliberately, his lips curing into a frown. The ice jiggled again.
That was all I got.
"No?" I managed to whisper.
I was unable to stop the tremor in my voice. What else could I say?
He shook his head again, his tone transitioning from a forte contempt to a pianissimo disgust.
"You're not a pianist. You're a fashion model."
He half turned to close the door in my face.
That did it. "You're not a pianist. You're a fashion model." It was the best thing he could have said. My blood pressure soared. My emotions came to a boil. My mind fumed with the echo of his first word: No. No? You're telling me NO? I'm a professional, Pal, just like you. Yeah, you're a genius. Fine. But I'm a Juilliard gal who had a free ride on tuition, and they don't give their full scholarships out like Halloween candy, Buster. I'm a world-class musician. Charlie Wadsworth called me. That's why I'm standing in your doorway, remember? I've half killed myself learning your indecipherable bullshit scores freezing my ass off in the back seat of a rental car, you can't even give me a day to rest because you're in such a God damned hurry suddenly to finish this commission you should have finished last year, and now you won't even listen to me play? It's all about you, isn't it, you ego-maniacal jerk? Well, I'm going to be your Assistant Conductor or one of us is going to die in the attempt.
He glanced back, seeing I had not scampered away with my tail between my legs. Our eyes met. This time he saw no fear. The clouds began to clear. Dawn broke.
I looked behind him into the living room. I could see the grand piano in the room just beyond. I stared at it, then back at him.
"Maestro," I said, "I've learned these scores and I'm ready to play for you."
No tremor in my voice now. I was determined that his gaze would be the first that faltered. It was.
He stepped to one side, not quite leaving me enough space to enter the room, and motioned to the piano with a shrug of his shoulders and a nonchalant wave of indifference. His face said everything I needed to hear: "Well, if you must, but let's make it quick, so I can get back to my work. I don't have time for this." Nobody could drip contempt like Leonard Bernstein.
I pushed past him, crossed the living room, entered his studio, seated myself at the piano and opened the music, my hands trembling with fury, and waited.
Bernstein said nothing.
Looking only at the music I called out, "Which one?"
That was the sound of the gauntlet striking the floor. Pistols at dawn.
Silence. Then: "Play number three."
Subtext: "Play number three, if you can."
Of course, the third one, the Julio de Burgos. It was the hardest one: inharmonic, cacophonic, not a single pleasant resolution of chords. Had I read this one first I might have turned down the opportunity to audition. It wasn't twelve-tone, like Schoenberg. It wasn't quite atonal. You could detect a tonal center provided you had the fortitude to look for it. The rhythm was diabolically complex. Playing the de Burgos was like threading a needle on a rollercoaster, and to interpret the music properly you had to understand the words. They were in Spanish. And I had learned it on a silent keyboard.
I looked up at the score. The tempo markings caught my eye. Allegro con fuoco: fast, quickly, and bright, with fire and rage. It starts double forte. It's a whirlwind about a woman who is undervalued, and is raging and seething inside to be recognized for who she is. It was the perfect song to link up with my own rage. He picked it to be a bastard. He picked it to destroy me. He couldn't have done me a bigger favor.
Bernstein's voice had come from the outer doorway. He hadn't moved. The arrogant son-of-a-bitch hadn't even closed the door. This would be quick. No sense wasting time when he tossed me out.
Yeah, pal, this will be quick, but not quick like you think.
I went for it. The rhythms were typically Bernstein—off beat, syncopated, West Side Story rhythms. I smoked it. I had never played with greater confidence. I made that piano shudder. I drove it into the floor and tore it apart. Every note was perfect, and I knew it, and he knew it too. Then I just sat, waiting.
Bernstein closed the door. I heard the sound of his ice jiggling as he crossed the outer room and entered his studio. He stood behind me, the smoke from his cigarette curling around me.
"Play the last one."
Israfel, by Edgar Allan Poe, scored for full orchestra and six voices. I went for it again. No sweat. I played it like I had written it, and better, because I knew I was a better pianist than he was, and by God he was going to know it too.
When the final notes sounded he sat down next to me on the piano bench. I never took my eyes from the music.
"Play my favorite. Play the Edna St. Vincent Millay."
His voice had changed. There was no contempt now.
I played the Millay.
Bernstein leaned closer, his head almost touching mine, examining the music as if someone else had composed it, totally focused, and said, almost to himself, "Do you like it?"
This was not a perfunctory question. Suddenly he was a human being, and I was a musician in his eyes, and he really wanted to know. He actually wanted my assurance that it was good. I was still lost in the music, marveling at this lovely poem and this perfect marriage of music and words, and thinking of how exquisitely mezzo-soprano Nancy Williams would evoke them both.
"I like it," I said, as if in a dream.
Then there was a long silence, but this time there was an intimacy to it rather than a distance. We were each reflecting on what this music could be. He was the first to speak.
"So, you're not a fashion model."
That was all I gave him. I won, but he owed me more.
"No," he smiled. "You're a pianist. What's your name?"
"Are you called Jacquelyne?"
"I'm called Jacqui."
He slid off the piano bench and walked, almost danced around the piano. "Oh, I'm so happy! I'm so glad Charlie sent you! Jacqui, Baby, we're going to work together!"
Rehearsals were to begin the following morning at 9:00. We chatted a bit more about the music and he walked me to the door.
"Maestro," I said, clasping his hand, "I'm thrilled to be working with you."
"It's not ‘Maestro.' It's ‘Lenny.' Call me ‘Lenny.'"
The door closed behind me, and I drifted to the elevator in a haze of unreality.
"Lenny?" Had I just been invited by the Maestro to call him "Lenny?"
That put me on air, and I thought as the elevator doors closed behind me how the greatest moments of my life had happened at the piano, and of that first magical moment when my fingers touched the keys.