100 Years of Bernstein and Finland
by Jeffrey Lang
One hundred years of both Finnish Independence and Leonard Bernstein are currently being celebrated throughout the world.The Philadelphia Orchestra is no exception to the festivities with our recent program of Sibelius and Bernstein, conducted by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. This concert inspired me to share my own story about how my life has been shaped by Leonard Bernstein and Finland.
A few years after graduating from the Juilliard School, I was invited by Maestro Zubin Mehta to join the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. During my seven years with the IPO, I was grateful for the opportunity to perform, record, and tour extensively with Leonard Bernstein. Working with such a legend at the beginning of my career was truly a gift, and that experience will last a lifetime. Bernstein was “maestro” on the podium but always “Lenny” off of it. Two of my highlights with Bernstein were performing and recording the Hindemith Konzertmusik for Brass and String Orchestra, and the Dvořák Cello Concerto with soloist Mischa Maisky.
Bernstein was a kind and caring man with a deep affection for all of his musicians. He served only the composer, was musically demanding, yet always gave plenty of room for individual expression. He was a genius at getting to the heart of a work and displaying the “big picture” for everyone to see. Then there was the spiritual side of his performances that is hard to describe in words.
Most musicians have a few moments in their careers when a performance reaches a previously unknown higher level. A few that come to mind are a Mahler Second Symphony performed at the base of Masada with Mehta conducting the IPO, and our own Bernstein Mass and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. However, a truly special experience on my list is an unforgettable Mahler Ninth Symphony with Bernstein and the IPO. Bernstein was deeply committed and connected to the music of Gustav Mahler and at times it seemed like he was Mahler. These performances left the audience in silence for what seemed like eternity after the last notes. One such performance in Japan will always be remembered by every member of the Israel Philharmonic. Bernstein’s ability to connect his musicians and audience to a higher spiritual level in the concert hall will always remain a mystery to me.
On a European tour with the Israel Philharmonic my worlds of Bernstein and Finland collided after a performance of the Brahms First Symphony in Munich. During the bows, Bernstein brought back to me a bouquet of flowers that had just been given to him. At the stage door, I handed them over to Finnish friends who were leaving on a boat to Finland the next day. You see, soon after arriving in Israel, I met a beautiful Finnish cellist, and those flowers were now en route to Elina in Finland. The rest is history, and thirty years later we have two sons: Johannes, a recording engineer, and Markus, a bass student at the Juilliard School.
My wife’s family name is well-known and closely connected to the history and musical life in Finland. Her great-great-grandfather was J.V. Snellman, a fierce advocate for Finnish culture, language, and independence. His portrait is on the old currency, the Finnish Markka, and the Snellman family coat of arms is proudly on display in the Finnish House of Nobles. I had no idea I was sending flowers to Finnish nobility from that concert in Munich! Our wedding reception was in the House of Nobles (it was free) and in attendance was the grandson of Jean Sibelius, Jan Ilves (he gave us 12 wine glasses). Jan Ilves was a friend of Elina’s mother, Sanna Mattinen-Snellman. Sanna was a life-long piano professor at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and her father, Olavi Snellman, was a well-known editorialist and industry representative. Deep connections with Finland and Finnish culture were starting to form. Soon after our wedding, an idea was hatched in the family sauna and we were given an island in a lake far north of Helsinki. We spend our summers in this idyllic setting and experience first-hand the natural beauty of the lakes and forests that Sibelius so vividly depicts in his music.
When you are a young musician, you have no idea what path your chosen instrument will take you. For a kid from New Jersey, the horn took me to Israel, Finland, New York, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and pretty much every place in between. My story is just a glimpse into how music constantly redirected my life. One hundred years of Finland and Bernstein came together in an interesting and fun way for me and also paired nicely for our orchestra’s recent program.