The Assistant


As assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic twenty-five-year-old Leonard Bernstein was to sit in on all rehearsals and learn the scores well enough to be able to conduct them in place of Artur Rodzinski or any guest conductor.

On November 13, 1943, as he attended the Town Hall recital of a friend, Bernstein had a secret. Philharmonic business manager Bruno Zirato had called him to say that the eminent Bruno Walter had come down with the flu and might not be able to conduct the next afternoon’s Carnegie Hall performance.

The concert would be broadcast on CBS radio, making it a national event.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

At nine o’clock the next morning Zirato called Bernstein again.

“Well, this is it. You have to conduct at three o’clock in the afternoon. No chance of a rehearsal. Bruno Walter…is all wrapped up in blankets at the hotel and says he will be happy to go over the scores with you.”

The broadcast part of the concert consisted of Schumann’s Manfred overture, Theme, Variations, and Finale by Miklós Rózsa, and the massive, complex Don Quixote of Richard Strauss—none of which Bernstein had ever conducted. After the broadcast, the concert would continue with Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude, the only piece that the orchestra had not performed recently, but which Bernstein had conducted three years previously at a Boston Pops Esplanade concert.

When Bernstein stopped by the Carnegie drugstore for a cup of coffee, a sympathetic druggist gave him two pills. “Look,” he said, “before you go on, just pop these into your mouth. One will calm you down, the other will give you energy.”

Backstage before the concert, Bruno Zirato gave him a hug and said, “Hey, Lenny, good luck, baby.”

Bernstein took the pills from his pocket and threw them as far as he could, saying “I’m going to do this on my own.”

And he did. The concert propelled Leonard Bernstein into the ranks of world-class conductors.