Prelude, Fugue & Riffs

Leonard Bernstein's Orchestrator


by Sid Ramin

Being chosen to orchestrate for Leonard Bernstein, himself a fine orchestrator, is akin to being awarded the Medal of Honor. I remember well the telephone call at 7:30 AM from Lenny asking me to orchestrate his new show, West Side Story, and the mixture of fear and excitement that accompanied it. That fear and excitement quickly blended into a modus operandis that resulted in some of the warmest and most enjoyable experiences in working on the show. I speak of what Lenny called "pre-orchestration" meetings and "post-orchestration" meetings.

The meetings took place at Lenny's New York studio apartment at the Osborne on West 57th Street. At the pre-orchestration meeting, Lenny would sit at the piano and play the material to be orchestrated for me and my friend Irv Kostal, who had agreed to work with me. Lenny would play and explain to us what he thought about the instrumentation and general feeling of the music. His remarks were always jovial and quite revealing. The atmosphere was warm and I savored every moment.

We would then sit together and discuss every measure of the music at great length. These discussions were so enjoyable that it was hard to believe I was getting paid to do this. If we were hungry, Lenny would telephone to the Stage Delicatessen for sandwiches, while we continued our exchange of ideas.

After the meeting, Irv and I would go to my studio, just across the street, and review what we thought we would do. After some consolidating of ideas, Irv would take part of the material and I would keep my half and we'd both put our notes down on score paper at our respective homes.

Next, came the "post-orchestration" meeting at Lenny's studio. Lenny would look at what we had done and comment. It was either "That's good" or "Gee, that's terrific!", when Irv and I had thought of something new to add, or "Now, why did you do that?", when Lenny didn't agree with something we had added. I'm happy and proud to say that Lenny usually accepted an idea gratefully.

Lenny had a red pencil and would use it to edit what we had done. He then used a blue pencil to make later edits. We used to joke about the probability of using a "green" pencil!

We had less than a month to orchestrate the show and it's difficult to realize that our pre and-post orchestration meetings remain so clearly in my memory after fifty years.

On a personal note, I met Lenny in 1931 and we remained staunch friends for the rest of his life.


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