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Film Review: Bernstein's Wall
by Karen Pecota

Award-winning director and producer Douglas Tirola adds another film to his artistic repertoire in his latest documentary Bernstein's Wall. The 100 minute-length film is comprised of mostly archival material told in the first-person with Leonard Bernstein's own words. Tirola explains, "The film feels as if Bernstein just walked into a bar after a performance, sat next to you, and shared his story." Adding, "Including, his most intimate thoughts as a way to teach and preach his meaning of life."

Tirola shares, "With the help of Bernstein's last assistant, the Bernstein family, archivists and museum curators, we have found every audio and filmed recording of him talking about his philosophy, politics and personal life." Continuing, "Bernstein also wrote over 10,000 letters in his lifetime and this is where he chose to share his fears and concerns, particularly about McCarthyism, the Black List, his marriage and his sexuality."

Tirola uses, in his film, conversations which Bernstein talks about his lifelong desire to be of influence in the world and constantly trying to answer a question often asked of him, "Can an artist change the world?" Bernstein's quick answer, "Yes!", and then notes that one can't do it necessarily through one's Art. Bernstein's Wall is at times an exploration of this desire to be of influence.

Here's one example in Berrnstein's own words, "Musicians now days have become stylistically sophisticated, they are in a position these days to hear everything, to learn, compare, assimilate, reject, alter and cross breed." In reference to conducting an orchestra in Berlin, Bernstein shares with the audience the reasons music transcends internationally and the significance to those who listen. Bernstein was known for speaking to the audience about the music during a performance. He believed that it was important to help the audience understand what they would hear and feel. Bernstein hoped a keen sense of appreciation for the symphony would then develop. He notes, "We become more international every day. That's why we are here...these 100 New Yorkers (referring to his orchestra) performing in Berlin...we've come to take one more step through this cultural exchange. It's this kind of report/event where men can come to a more peaceful world freely and in harmony." Adding, "That's why I write music, direct, compose or do anything I do because I love people. I pray I have the energy to be contributing (positively) to people and the world (in peace and harmony)."

Bernstein was convinced that if people were to feel the music he conducted, then the music had the potential to color and shape our hopes and dreams. He loved talking to the audience and to tell them what was going on in the piece the orchestra was performing. He would share, "The joy of conducting is that we breath's a love experience."


In his own words, Bernstein reflects on his past, present, and future as a son of Russian Jewish immigrants who makes a way for himself learning music. An aunt gave his family a piano and Leonard learned to play it at a very young age, but his father wasn't so keen on him pursuing music as a career. He was hard task-master of sorts and Leonard wanted to be nothing like him.

At the age of twenty, Bernstein graduated from Harvard. His desire was to be a conductor of an orchestra but didn't know how. In 1939-1940 he learned to conduct music at the Tanglewood School working with a youth orchestra. Through this experience he became enamored with the variety of musical sounds and the feelings it conjured within.

World War II was underway and Leonard was summoned to the draft board in August of 1943 but was rejected to serve because of his severe asthma. He continued his pursuit in music and was hired as an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic. In the same year, at the age of twenty-five, the first guest conductor who was to perform at Carnegie Hall got sick and Leonard was called upon. At the end of the performance, he received a standing-ovation and from that point on Bernstein enjoyed living his dream the rest of his life as a well-loved, and successful Conductor. But, as Tirola will present in Bernstein's Wall there were many more facets to Leonard's life that brought him joy.