A moment with the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein is something many people would commemorate and add to their cocktail party roster of stories. But Music Professor Ching-chu Hu, a well-known composer himself, had not thought about his brush with Bernstein until August 25, 2018, the occasion of Bernstein’s 100th birthday, when Hu’s mother reminded him by way of a photograph.
“Mom sent a scanned picture of this photograph from their living room wall,” says Hu. “It had been hanging there for 30 years.”
The image was of Hu and Bernstein at a dinner for composition fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center just outside Boston. Hu was there as a composition student in the Tanglewood high school program. After a concert that Bernstein conducted, there was a receiving line for his fans. Hu’s friends encouraged him to ask Bernstein to look at his music. “I remember feeling extremely reticent to bother him, but my friends, said, ‘what do you have to lose?’ So, I did,” he says.
“I introduced myself, and said, ‘Mr. Bernstein? I know you’re kind of busy…’ I started. ‘Kind of busy?’ he said, with a raised eyebrow and a slight smile. ‘Well, really busy,’ I quickly corrected, ‘but I was wondering if I could send you some of my music to get your critique?’ He said, ‘Of course,’ and gave me his card. I thought that was great, and as I started to leave, he asked, ‘Ching-chu, are you busy tomorrow night? I’m having some composition fellows over for dinner. Why don’t you come as well and bring your music.’ Needless to say, I was on cloud nine the rest of the night.”
“As Bernstein guided him to the end of the movement, the sound died away, and it was silent for about 45 seconds.”
“The next evening, when I arrived, he greeted me, having come out of the pool in a speedo and a towel around his shoulders, remembering my name and giving me a great big hug. The evening was amazing. The photo is our conversation about a flute and piano work that I showed him at the time. He and composer George Perle talked with me, sharing ideas. I was fascinated with his memory. Not only did he remember my name (not easy), but he would ask about family members of the composition fellows, many of whom he had met only once. The room was electrified by his presence and it was an evening I would never forget,” says Hu.
Hu also vividly remembers the conducting workshop at Tanglewood. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget watching as Bernstein worked with four conducting fellows, each on one movement of Brahms 2. It was a small room, possibly the Seranak, where we watched as he sat, teaching, instructing, as one by one they went up to the podium,” he recalls.
“In addition, two AMAZING pianists, one on each side of the conductor, would divide and play off the orchestra score. They captured every nuance, every phrasing, and every mistake.”
Hu adds. “Though I can’t remember who they were, I remember vividly that something about the last fellow, who was conducting the slow movement, captivated Bernstein. The attention, the details, the encouragement and pushing of him, was mesmerizing.”
“As Bernstein guided him to the end of the movement, the sound died away, and it was silent for about 45 seconds. No one in the room moved. We heard what he heard. And it was only when Bernstein, with his eyes still closed, exhaled, shoulders falling, body relaxing, that we all did the same, and sounds of the birds outside came to our ears again.”