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Ahead of Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro” release, BSO VP details film shoot at Tanglewood and reacts to Jewface controversy

Leonard Bernstein with his class of conducting auditors at Tanglewood, Summer 1948.
Leonard Bernstein with his class of conducting auditors at Tanglewood, Summer 1948.

On Saturday, Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” – a biopic about legendary American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein – makes its world premiere at the 80th Venice International Film Festival. It’s directed by, written by, and stars Cooper. Scenes for the film were shot at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in Lenox and Stockbridge. The venue was a home away from home for Bernstein, who made annual trips to the Berkshires from Tanglewood’s inaugural season in 1940 until his death in 1990. The film’s arrival comes with controversy. Cooper – who is not Jewish – wears a large prosthetic nose in his depiction of Bernstein, prompting accusations of Jewface that led to Bernstein’s family issuing a public statement defending Cooper’s choice. Similar concerns were raised over the casting of Carey Mulligan – a white British gentile – to play Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre, who was Costa Rican-Chilean and a converted Jew. WAMC spoke with BSO Vice President of Artistic Planning Anthony Fogg about the organization’s thoughts on the film.

FOGG: We were all incredibly excited just watch the trailer, and of course, can't wait till the movie comes out. The shots on the on the Tanglewood lawn under the big tree or up at Seranak- You know, it was sort of startling to see it. It's also startling to see how much Bradley Cooper resembles Leonard Bernstein. I was around for some of the filming back in in May of 2022, and I was absolutely gobsmacked by the resemblance. It wasn't in the trailer, but there is an actor who plays Koussevitzky, and Koussevitzky rehearsing in the shed- And it is just uncanny the degree to which he has assumed all of Koussevitzky’s manners and gestures, and so on. So, look, I can't wait. It'll be great promotion for Tanglewood. Wish it had been back in May or June, but it'll keep the spirit and the memory of Tanglewood lasting way over the winter season. So, it'll be great for everyone.

So, what was it like working with a film crew on the Tanglewood campus? What kind of participation was there between the BSO and the production?

It was preseason, so it wasn't interfering with any other scheduled activities. They focused on certain areas of the campus that would have been in existence when Bernstein was still alive and active. For instance, Ozawa Hall and the new Linde Center, of course, didn't exist back in that time. But they focused over on what was referred to as the theater concert hall, Seranak, and in the shed itself. And, you know, the place was just- It was a production site, with wiring, cabling running all around the place, with trailers and crews and sound people and everything. It was like a small army had descended on this campus. The days I was here was when they were filming several of the segments with Bernstein giving a conducting masterclass in the theater. And it was the orchestra from Bard College, I believe, and they were there in clothing of the time. So, this would have been early 80s. The attention to detail was really incredible. When you see the Boston Symphony rehearsing in what was the trade of the 1940s, they had music stands from that period, rather elaborate carved music stands. And they made a few very subtle adjustments to the shed itself, which if you know old photographs of the shed or you've been coming to Tanglewood for many, many decades, you'll remember that these changes were part of the original previous structure of the shed. So, the attention to detail in all of this was really incredible. But just watching the trailer the other day, what struck me was not only the degree to which Mr. Cooper looks like Bernstein, but the voice and gestures. There was a scene where he doing a masterclass with a young conductor and the young conductor finishes, and he just puts his arm around him and congratulates him in a way that we have seen so many photos of Bernstein doing, and films, and Bradley Cooper just has this down at perfection. It was some sort of unnerving to see it. So, I can't wait to the whole thing is available and we're already planning a few viewing parties in Boston in November. And certainly, we hope that next summer, the impact of that movie will encourage a lot of people just to come and see the real thing itself.

Did you get a sense from Bradley Cooper, who stars in the movie and wrote it and directed it, about what it was like for him to actually be on campus at Tanglewood after doing all of this preparation to fully embody Leonard Bernstein?

Well, he spent a lot of time here in preparation for this. He was around- You may remember that 2018 was the centennial of Bernstein's birth and we had a whole summer of Bernstein-focused activities, including a big gala concert on the actual day of the 100th birthday. And Bradley Cooper was around. He would just show up, oftentimes without warning, he’d just appear at the box office and buy tickets to something or other – where we would have been happy to provide one – but, so he spent a lot of time just absorbing the spirit of this place, and putting himself in Bernstein’s shoes in terms of feeling the spirit of Tanglewood, which is a very strong one. There are many spirits and ghosts around this place, and you can tell that he really tapped into that.

The release of the trailer was met with criticism by some viewers and critics who were offended by Bradley Cooper, who is not Jewish, choosing to wear a prosthetic nose in his portrayal of Bernstein. What are your thoughts on Cooper's decision and the reaction from some members of the public?

Yes, I read some of it, and I was also very pleased to read the response of the Bernstein children, who completely endorsed the approach that the makeup artists had taken, and they said that they just felt that their father would have been so approving of everything as well. So, look, of course something which one should always be sensitive to, portrayal of different physical characteristics related to race or religion. This is a film, and an actor's job is to really try and recreate a figure from history as best they can. And I think that's what this is all about.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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