75 years ago today, Leonard Bernstein made his famed New York Philharmonic debut at Carnegie Hall at age 25 — famously filling in with a few hours’ notice and without rehearsal for an ailing Bruno Walter. The concert was broadcast nationally, and The New York Times ran a front-page story the next day, calling his performance “a good American success story.” Have a listen to the radio announcement from that famed afternoon.
In 1989, Bernstein recalled his debut:
“When it came to the time — that very day — all I can remember is standing there in the wings shaking and being so scared. There was no rehearsal. I had just come from seeing Bruno Walter, who very sweetly and very quickly — wrapped up in blankets because he had the flu — went over the score of Don Quixote with me. He showed me a few tricky spots where he cut off here but didn’t cut off there; here you give it an extra upbeat, and so on.... The time seemed to hang heavy till 3:00 p.m., even though I had to go over some of the tricky spots in Don Quixote with the cello and viola soloists and the concertmaster. The thing that was obsessing me, possessing me, was the opening of the Schumann overture, which is very tricky because it starts with a rest — the downbeat is a rest. If they don't come in together, the whole concert is sunk. I mean, I can’t once go ‘bop, bop, bop,’ and make sure they can do it. So, this was like a nightmare. I had to go on and do, untried, this thing of such difficulty. You know, I’ve heard other people come to grief in that opening bar. Then I finally went and talked with the guys and they said, ‘Good luck.’ [Philharmonic manager] Bruno Zirato said, ‘Hey, Lenny. Good luck, baby.’ Oh, he was very fatherly and gave me big bear hugs. And that was about it.”
Photos: New York Philharmonic Archives