More Memories of My Friend Leonard Bernstein

New York, N.Y. The greatest ever American musician, Leonard Bernstein, was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in August, 1918. This year — 2018 — was the Bernstein’s 100th birthday and there were many celebrations, man features in various media. Because he was indeed the greatest musician ever born in the United States.

Bernstein was a Jewish American composer, conductor and pianist. More than anything, he was a passionate human being and a very kind friend. Bernstein and our family were very close. The reason is that my husband Raphael Hillyer roomed with Lennie many times. The first time was in 1940 at the first summer course Berkshire Music Center, created by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s then musical director Serge Koussevitzky.

921px-Leonard_Bernstein_NYWTS_1955Leonard Bernstein seated at piano, making annotations to musical score, 1955.

Later on, The Tanglewood Music Festival was sponsored by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This festival was and still is a wonderful project in where students and professional musicians work and study together.

My husband and Bernstein participated as the first year students of this summer course, as roommates. They became very close and their friendship continued later as they both went on to Harvard. There, they were roommates in Cambridge, living in harmony. So I became also very close friend to Lenny.

Lenny used to come to our Manhattan apartment across the Lincoln Center where I still live today. He was a very delicate person who wanted to be liked by everyone, even he was such a famous person, . Even after my husband and I got separated, he came to my place often. Since there was a Hamburg Steinway Piano, he came here and played the piano. He often came on Sunday, and I usually served bagels and smoked salmon and creamy cheese, typical of the Jewish breakfast..

I remember him writing “West Side Story” first as an opera rather than a Broadway musical, as it was his dream to write a large opera. The stage of the story was set at just the area of the Lincoln Center where I live. In the past, There were a lot of small apartment buildings called tenement housing and mostly poor Puerto Ricans and Blacks lived in the area., All the building were destroyed, smashed up, to make the room for Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center was built by driving the people away who lived there to the west, back of the Lincoln Center. This was the stage of “West Side Story.”

At that time Lenny was already a great man, and I knew that this opera would be a big hit from the beginning. But, at the end it became the great Broadway Show. There are so numerous wonderful musical points in this piece. For example such as the rhythm juxtaposition, that overlapped 3 beats and 4 beats constantly.

There were not many opportunities for Lenny and myself to work together in terms of my professional caree , but thanks to the fact that he had made close friendships with me, I had a lot of help in this area. When I tried to revived the Beacon Theater that was about to being tore down, I talk to Lenny who was visiting my apartment, When I asked him my wish to save the Beacon Theater, he called Grace! He was calling on the spot from my living room., and afterward, I discovered THIS was Grace Kelly of Queen Monaco! She did a lot for saving the theater, thanks to Lenny. Thanks to her becoming the honorable chairman of the foundation I created to save the Beacon, So many luminous people gave the funds and came for the opening night!

She participated in the opening ceremony and even appeared on the stage to read from the ‘Children’ of lesser God” reading. This was the first time she appeared on the stage after she became the Queen of Monaco. Prince Albert also came together at that time.. (I was wearing a kimono, and 5 minutes before she arrived, I was still laying a new RED carpet, shaking my sweat). At that time that Lenny called I had no idea it was Grace Kelly. He made a phone call so casually so I was surprised that it was about Grace Kelly. Lenny was this kind of person.

When I think about it, my Impresario work, it also started thanks to him. It was Lenny who helped to start my career. One day Lenny and a young German conductor, Helmuth Rilling came to our house,.telling me and my husband to listen to recordings. We listen to these records all night long. They were really so great! I have decided to handle this project for the German Government to invite this group to tour United States, It was the first time I organized such a large tour. So with this group, My “ Impresario career” was born thanks to Lenny.. Indeed, My impresario work this group.! I was a young, and a Japanese woman, in the field of fierce competition. And at the time the German government did not trust me, Lenny helped me recommending me and gave me also such a courage.

Lenny was a person who cared very much about the people around him, whether it is delicate or even too gentle, and he was a person who loved everyone around him, and wanted to feel loved by everyone.. I have often been in the booth at his recordings, but he often came to chat and cared about me and talked, commenting on the books I’m reading. He was such a famous person that He does not have to care about such little person like me! What I feel now even today, was very gentle and kind memories and compassion of him. I feel much compassionate, gentle love and deep deep gratitude for him.

Originally published as Vol. 57 in Weekly Biz, January 26, 2019; translated by Jim Luce. 

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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