Jonathan Cott's story of a day spent with Bernstein shows an energetic, gifted musician who was determined not to limit himself.
"Don't expect miracles and don't get depressed if nothing happens for a while. That's NY." The advice was offered by composer Aaron Copland to a young Leonard Bernstein soon after Bernstein moved to New York in 1942. Within a year, Artur Rodzińkski, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, had chosen Bernstein to become his assistant. "I have gone through all the conductors I know... and I finally asked God whom I should take, and God said, `Take Bernstein.'"
Apparently, the Lord knew a thing or two about music. Three months after his appointment in November 1943, Bernstein made his conducting debut with the Philharmonic, replacing the ailing Bruno Walter, a celebrated maestro, on a few hours' notice. There was no time to rehearse for the Sunday afternoon performance, and Bernstein was hung over, anyway – the result, he recalled, of "carrying on like mad" at a reception the previous night.
Bernstein's enormously successful debut with the Philharmonic is now legendary as his colossal talent carried him through the afternoon concert, which was broadcast across the country. Later, Bernstein claimed to remember none of it, from the time he strode onto the stage until he walked off. "It was all a dream." But one of the orchestra's violinists remembered the performance, calling him "the most extraordinary musician" he'd ever met. Even the orchestra cheered.