My Brother Lenny

by Burton Bernstein



My brother Lenny, who was always larger than life, turned out to be smaller than death. Amazingly – just like that! – he is no more. It seems impossible.

Those of us who were closest to him, who knew him best and longest, who loved him most, we – such lucky ones we are! – we somehow assumed that he would go on forever, like time itself, that he was somehow immortal, not just perishable matter like the rest of us.

There would, we felt, always be our Lenny doing what he did so passionately, so brilliantly, so charmingly, so originally, so lovingly, and, yes sometimes so excessively – always so full of life and so much larger than life.

All the world knows what he did:

Teaching people – his favorite occupation, really. Descended from rabbis, he was a rabbi at heart, a master teacher. Just listening to Lenny was an education. (I know this better than because I was taught by Lenny from just about my first day on this earth.) There was nothing he'd rather do than stimulate new thoughts for, especially, young minds.

Making history. He was the living precedent for American music – the first American to be taken seriously on the concert stage. I think it can be said that he made it possible for any talented American kid to follow in his footsteps.

Experimenting with the new, even though he was a hopeless traditionalist. He welcomed the avant-garde, but he cherished the pristine, lovely tune – the simple song.

Revivifying the old – which I believe was his greatest gift as a conductor. How often have we heard, as if for the first time, an echt Lenny rendition of, say, Tchaikovsky's Fifth or Brahms's First, and marveled at all the nuances we had missed over the years? How often have we seen and listened to him draw, through sheer love and musicianly example, unforgettable performances from orchestra – performances the musicians would later admit that the never knew they had in them? His very last concert – conducting Beethoven's Seventh at Tanglewood – was only one case in point.

Preaching love and peace. Naively, he wanted the whole world to love itself into one big happy family, and he took it as a personal affront when the world refused to comply. He maintained unflinching optimism and religious trust in the ultimate improvability of man, despite all the hard evidence to the contrary. Lenny was in love with love.

Helping young talent and his less celebrated, less lucky contemporaries, some of whom responded to his kindnesses with rank envy and disloyalty, which typically, Lenny was quick to ignore or forgive.

And for those of us who were his nearest and dearest, there will always be the special memories:

His love of games, and particularly, his infuriating success in trouncing us at anagrams – the game of games, at least to him. And then there were tennis and squash and skiing and swimming and sailing and touch football – the last featuring the annual Thanksgiving classic, called the Nose Bowl [note spelling correction: not "Nose Ball"], in the backyard of his house in Fairfield, Connecticut.

His grand generosity with his worldly goods and with his loving spirit. No one in Lenny's company was ever left wanting. And a compliment from Lenny was like no other compliment; it was total, absolute, and thoroughly thrilling for the fortunate recipient. (Of course, he could also be occasionally tactless. Shirley once said that if you happened to have a pimple on the end of your nose, Lenny would lose no time in pointing it out to you – and perhaps the entire world. He was an enfant terrible to the end.)

His happiness at others' happiness. He really did share in others' joy, and also in their grief.

His "obliging at the pianoforte," as he would put it – at Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, Passover, whatever, whenever, great occasion or not.

His humor, which so often went with the "obliging." A great joke was a great performance for Lenny. He could laugh – and make us laugh – in a dozen languages, including our very own private family language called Rybernian. Language: To Lenny, words were mysterious, astonishing creatures – to be scrutinized and analyzed like cells under a microscope. Words were the equals of musical notes for him, and he loved them with equal fervor.

Just as long as people care a damn about something finer in life than power and money and their imagined superiority over others there will always be Lenny around to educate, entertain, edify, move and inspire – to change us all in some wonderful, subtle way.
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