I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. Click here to subscribe!
Leonard Lehrman has been passionate about music since birth. In his interview with me, he says, “I was given a toy piano, songbooks, and crayons, and promptly started to try devising my own notation to help me remember melodies.” In addition to writing music, he’s written for countless outlets, including Opera Monthly, Jewish Currents, and SoundWordSight.com.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
Clearly responding vigorously to music even before I could talk, I was given a toy piano, songbooks, and crayons, and promptly started to try devising my own notation to help me remember melodies. After four years of piano, my mother’s cousin Rose Kabat suggested taking me to Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) shortly after my 11th birthday. He said he didn’t take students that young, but after hearing the 45 minutes of music I’d composed, to date, he did. He was my private teacher for 7 years & 3 summers, and I did over 100 concerts of his music, founding The Elie Siegmeister Society in 1999. On his deathbed he said, “I don’t want to call you my disciple, as I don’t believe in doctrine. But you’re my continuator.” The Continuator will be the title of my memoirs, which I hope to finish before my 75th birthday, in 2024.
At Harvard I met Tom Lehrer (a number of whose works I’ve completed) and Leonard Bernstein, who encouraged me, as did Siegmeister, to complete works by Marc Blitzstein, which I did—21 of them. I also performed, produced, and recorded them, edited 3 volumes of his songs (Vol. 2 and Vol. 3), and wrote bio-bibliographies of him and Siegmeister. Bernstein recommended me for a position as Metropolitan Opera Assistant Chorus Master, for which I had to give up a career in academia (having written a Musical Theatre course syllabus for SUNY-Geneseo, which would not, however, give me a one-year leave of absence). I then worked 7 years in German-speaking Europe (Heidelberg, Augsburg, Basel, Vienna, Bremerhaven, Berlin), becoming the first Jew to conduct Fiddler on the Roof in Berlin, and founding the Jüdischer Musiktheaterverein there in 1983. After my first marriage broke up, in November 1985, I came home to New York, with a new piece about Emma Goldman, for which Helene Williams auditioned on Jan. 11, 1987 and, as I like to say, walked off with the part and the composer.
In 1989 Helene and I organized the first Naturist Opera Workshop, in Bélézy, France, performing 3 mermaid operas: excerpts from the Rusalkas of Dvorák (in French) and Dargomyzhsky (translated from Russian into English by me & my mother), and Elie Siegmeister’s complete Mermaid in Lock No. 7. Thus began The Naturist Society’s Opera/Musical Theatre Special Interest Group, still going strong.
In 1998 Helene and I performed the first Yiddish song recital at Bayreuth during the Wagner Festival, on Wolfgang Wagner‘s invitation, and were invited back again in 2000 (as well as the Heinrich Heine Institut in Düsseldorf). In 2001-2 we performed my Australian Odyssey in Roslyn and Melbourne & Sydney, Australia, where 6 poets read the works of 14 poets whose words I’d set to music. On July 14, 2002 six composers wrote music for our Manhattan wedding at Stephen Wise.
2006 was our Israel debut: Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv—a recital attended by former Mayor Shlomo “Chich” Lahat (my mother’s 3rd cousin), concluding with the “Shir L’Shalom,” sung simultaneously in the original Hebrew and my English translation. In 2012, we were artists-in-residence, conducting a workshop on American opera and a recital at the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop.
In 2014, I taught the first course on Jewish Opera at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan and became High Holidays Music Director of The Metropolitan Synagogue and Organist/Choir Director at Christ Lutheran in Rosedale. In 2015, I conducted the English-language premiere of the complete Dargomyzhsky Rusalka, in memory of my mother, at Queens College, which created a plaque in her memory.
In 2016, Helene and I made two trips to Russia & Belarus, performing and recording in Minsk, Bobruisk, Vitebsk, Petersburg (my 8 Russian Songs, with the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra) and Moscow (the US Embassy Cultural Center, Scriabin Museum, and University for the Humanities). In 2019 my opera, A Loveletter from Rosa Luxemburg had 4 performances in the US in English and 2 in Germany in German, including opening the Lüneburg Festival in October. Helene and I also performed in Sighet, Elie Wiesel’s hometown, in Romania.
So far as music criticism is concerned, I was Critic-at-Large for my high school newspaper, wrote briefly for the Harvard Crimson, then WHRB radio reviews, and became Editor of the Dunster Drama Review and later the Risley Review at Cornell. In 1989-91 I produced “Music of All the Americas” over WBAI in NYC. I’ve also been Editor of Opera Today for the Center for Contemporary Opera, Associate Editor of Opera Monthly (20 articles), Copy Editor for The New Music Connoisseur (44), and contributor to Andante.com, Aufbau (112 articles), Jewish Week (9), Opera Journal (8), The Forward (7), Jewish Currents (over 140), American Music, Sonneck Society Bulletin, Portside, and most recently an article on Civil Rights songs for Music & Politics. Currently I write for the online arts journal SoundWordSight.com (29 articles, to date).
Walk me through a typical week-to-week for you right now.
Sunday mornings, I play at a mostly Black Lutheran church 8 minutes away, where I’ve been since 2014. I was offered a job for twice what I make there at another Lutheran church, but it’s 55 miles away, so I turned it down and am just subbing there now for weddings and on some vacation days. (That said, I’ve just accepted a job as Organist/Choir Director/Composer-in-Residence at Grace Episcopal Church in Massapequa, NY.) Church choir will be weekly again, starting Sep. 28. Mondays (and other days as needed) I work as Reference Librarian at Oyster Bay-East Norwich Public Library, where I’ve been since March 1995. (I’m the oldest librarian there, and also the one who’s been there the longest). Tuesdays I rehearse with violinist Daniel Hyman, whom I’ve known for 10 years, and with whom I’ve been doing monthly Zoom concerts (along with soprano Helene Williams) since last December, in conjunction with our local Valley Stream library. The President of the Library Board recently said we had “put the library on the map.”(!) Other days I work at editing, archiving, arranging, orchestrating, or printing out parts for my 12 operas, 7 musicals, 237 other works, adaptations and translations (from German, Russian, French, Romanian, Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino) and organizing performances of them, as well as writing occasional reviews of performances and recordings. I just finished what I believe is the first complete setting of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.”
How has your approach to your work changed over the past few years?
What would you like to see more of in music journalism?
Reviews of recordings & events, live/on Zoom, especially of composers & performers I admire.
What would you like to see less of in music journalism?
All the latest technical achievements which enable folks to express themselves who have nothing to say. Articles by people with no musical training or understanding, and who concentrate on subjective feelings rather than objective evaluations.
Once upon a time, a composer/critic like Virgil Thomson could write criticism and promote his own works and those of his friends with impunity. You can’t do that now, unless you write for an editor (as I now fortunately do) who doesn’t mind a bit of self-promotion now and then.
What artist or work are you most interested in right now?
Marc Blitzstein (1905-64), and my own completions/continuations of his work, and work in his spirit.
What was the best track / video or film / book you’ve consumed in the past 12 months?
Jack Gottlieb’s Working with Bernstein which I wish I’d known about earlier, when I read and reviewed Charlie Harmon’s and Jamie Bernstein’s memoirs. Miriam Schneir, in gratitude for my having influenced the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case to posthumously publish her husband Walter’s book, The Final Verdict, sent us her latest book, Before Feminism, which I’m looking forward to reading.
If you had to point folks to one thing of yours, what would it be and why?
My completion of Marc Blitzstein’s self-styled magnum opus, the opera Sacco and Vanzetti which received its premiere concertante with piano in 2001, and has been fighting an uphill battle to receive its NY premiere and orchestral premiere since then, having been scheduled but then postponed in various places, several times.
Anything you want to plug?
The “retrospective preview” of Sacco and Vanzetti, a live commentary on Zoom with past & future cast members, will include the complete Aug. 19, 2001 video, as part of Hofstra’s Italian American Lecture Series, Oct. 19 & 21, 2021.
Our upcoming Zoom concerts: Sept. 21 on Romance, Romania & Humor; Oct. 5 on Russia; Nov. 9 Autumn; Dec. 7 Winter.
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