How Leonard Bernstein almost got his conducting start in Minneapolis

Leonard Bernstein, left, then 27, chats with Yves Chardon, the principal cellist and assistant conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, in 1945.Minnesota Orchestra Collection, the University of Minnesota Performing Arts Archives

May 10, 2018

At a single Minneapolis concert in December 1945, Leonard Bernstein conducted pieces by Beethoven, Strauss, Brahms and Copland at the Northrop Memorial Auditorium. Two years later, he returned for an all-Russian program of Kabalevsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.

After that, nothing.

That, at least, is what the record books tell us about the two occasions on which the great American composer and conductor came to Minneapolis to conduct the city's symphony orchestra, the forerunner of today's Minnesota Orchestra.

The centenary of Bernstein's birth falls on Aug. 25 this year. But except for those isolated 1940s visits, the Twin Cities have seemingly little to connect them to the career of arguably the most gifted American musician of the 20th century.

Dig deeper, though, and a story of fascinating what-might-have-beens and missed connections begins to surface.

It started in 1937 at Harvard University, where the 19-year-old Bernstein was a sophomore. At a campus party, he met the Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, a brilliantly talented musician building a major career for himself in the United States.

Mitropoulos was twice Bernstein's age, but his impact on the younger man was, writes Mitropoulos biographer William R. Trotter, that of an "emotional earthquake."

Some of the tremors might have been erotic in nature. Mitropoulos was gay, and in a thinly fictionalized account of their meeting the bisexual Bernstein noted the Greek conductor's "wide, full mouth, the strong nose, a disarming gentleness in the small blue eyes."

Artistically, there was no doubting the intensity of the rapport that the two quickly established. Bernstein "had gone bananas" when he attended a Mitropoulos concert in Boston, electrified by the passionate intensity of his conducting style.

Dimitri Mitropoulos 1937
Dimitri Mitropoulos led the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1937 to 1949.
Minnesota Orchestra archives

In turn, Mitropoulos seemed captivated by the charisma of the young Bernstein, whose fanatical devotion to music he clearly viewed as mirroring his own.

Then came a fateful twist. A week after his first encounter with Bernstein, Mitropoulos made his conducting debut with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. It was dazzlingly successful, and 10 days later he was appointed music director for the 1937-38 season.

A year later, by now established in his new position, Mitropoulos invited Bernstein to spend the Christmas holiday of 1938 with him in Minneapolis. Details of the visit are murky, but it seems that during it Mitropoulos made Bernstein a tantalizing and potentially life-changing offer.

"Mr. Mitropoulos had said he would give him a job with the Minneapolis Symphony as soon as he graduated from college," was the way that Bernstein's father Sam remembered the incident later.

"A job" was possibly not quite what Mitropoulos had suggested. What he had in mind for his young protege was more of an apprenticeship — attending rehearsals, acting as a message boy and conducting the orchestra if Mitropoulos was ill.

Still, Bernstein, who had started an advanced course in conducting after graduating from Harvard, was enthusiastically expecting to move to Minneapolis in the summer of 1940, in readiness for the 1940-41 season.

But then a hammer-blow fell, in the shape of an urgent telegram from Mitropoulos:

"Don't leave your class for next season. "Some difficulties here. … Am very awfully sorry."

The "difficulties" Mitropoulos referred to were real. They turned out to be insurmountable.

Local labor laws in Minneapolis dictated that the post of assistant conductor that Mitropoulos had offered to Bernstein was an administrative position, and all administrative positions had to be filled by natives of Minnesota.

Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Mass., simply didn't meet the residential qualifications. Nor was the board of the Minneapolis Symphony keen on hiring a callow, 22-year-old student with no experience to help run a professional orchestra.

Bernstein was shattered by the decision.

"I received a wire from Dimitri that knocks my world completely to hell," he wrote to his composer friend David Diamond. "The prospect of next year was for me the one, single motive of my activity."

Bernstein did eventually return to Minneapolis, at Mitropoulos' invitation, to conduct the two subscription concerts in 1945 and 1947. But the two men were never quite so close again.

In a cruel irony, it was Bernstein who eventually succeeded Mitropoulos as music director of the New York Philharmonic, when the Greek conductor was ousted by a cabal of unsympathetic critics and uncooperative players — a process in which Bernstein was rumored to have participated.

What would have happened if Bernstein had come to Minneapolis in 1940? Would he have taken over as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony, when Mitropoulos left for New York nine years later? Would he still have written Candide and West Side Story?

We will, of course, never know the answers. What we do know is that Bernstein made a considerable impression in the two concerts that he did conduct in Minneapolis.

"Anything but a prim batonist," was critic John Sherman's slightly befuddled reaction. "He punched out the music with right hooks and left jabs and gave it kindling warmth and eloquence."

Could Bernstein's undoubted musical charisma have led to an enduring relationship with the Minneapolis Symphony? Quite possibly, says Kevin Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra.

"The orchestra and Mitropoulos had a wonderful partnership at that time," Smith says. "And Bernstein was such an exciting musical personality, he probably would have fit in extremely well artistically and had a great experience with the orchestra."

On a personal and social level, however, Smith feels that the flamboyant Bernstein might well have found the Twin Cities more difficult to fit into.

"Bernstein is so associated with New York and the East Coast that it is hard to imagine him thriving in middle America," he says.

"But who knows? If it had happened, there might be a Bernstein statue on the Nicollet Mall today, right next to Mary Tyler Moore."