Maestro brings the first couple of New York’s mid-century music scene, Leonard and Felicia Bernstein, to the screen

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 2, 2024

Maestro (2023) premiered at the Venice International Film Festival on 2 September 2023. Directed and co-written by Bradley Cooper, the film features Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as his wife, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein. The film focuses on the relationship between the couple against the meteoric rise of Leonard’s conducting career and the success of his music for West Side Story. The movie starts with Leonard in an on/off relationship with clarinetist David Oppenheim.

As Wikipedia puts it, Bernstein’s “homosexuality is diverted soon afterward, when he meets Felicia Montealegre, an aspiring actress”, who he eventually marries and with whom he has 3 children. By the mid-1950s, the Bernsteins were the talk of the town. Felicia’s acting career had taken off on both television and Broadway. By this time, Leonard Bernstein had composed Candide, West Side Story, and other music for Broadway and was touring the world as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

The Bernsteins hosted parties regularly. As John Gruen, a friend and photographer remarked, “There was always food, generosity and merriment, word games and puzzles. It gave our lives a panache in those years.” This panache extended to the Bernsteins’ social life. Felicia was a society icon and fashion influencer. Her outfits were reported on and her style was lauded. She is credited with helping to transform the opening concerts of the NY Philharmonic season into fashionable events.

In 1958, Felicia told NY Times, “Fads can become serious. Some may attend to show off their mink, find they enjoy the music, and become devoted to the Philharmonic.” It would be a mistake to think that Felicia’s contribution to serious music was confined to her public appeal. She was the narrator in Lukas Foss’s musical Parable of Death, she played the title role in Arthur Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and she narrated her husband’s Symphony No. 3: Kaddish. Here is the couple at home:

That was a 1955 interview for the popular television series “Person to Person,” hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Alquemy comments on YouTube: “Just got home from watching Maestro. I knew nothing about the Bernsteins before going, and now I’m haunted by them, in a good way. It was an emotional journey I wasn’t expecting. And this scene is in the film – they don’t do the whole thing, but a lot of it is there – and they nailed it. Both leads were amazing.”

Besides his compositions, Bernstein is known for conducting orchestras around the world, for the classical music recordings he was involved with, for reviving and popularising the music of Mahler, and for conducting piano concertos from the piano stool. Both Bernsteins were known for their support for progressive causes. In 1963, Felicia was elected first chair of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Division. During the late sixties, Felicia protested against the Vietnam War. In 1970, the Bernsteins held a fundraiser to support the families of members of the Black Panther Party who had been jailed for 9 months and still had no trial date. In the 1970s, Felicia supported Amnesty International.

Maestro can be watched on Netflix from 20 December 2023. It promises to be quite a spectacle, with the complex relationship of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein unfolding in sumptuous settings to a powerful soundtrack. And, maybe, to paraphrase Felicia, some of those who watch for the glamour and the drama might find they enjoy the music, and become devoted to it.

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