"Lenny was nine years older than I was, and it was sort of betwixt and between. We were neither contemporaries nor master and pupil"
In October 1939, just as 11-year-old Seymour Lipkin was beginning his second year studying piano at Curtis, Leonard Bernstein passed a late audition and was accepted as a conducting student under Fritz Reiner. Bernstein, at 21 years old, was significantly older than Lipkin, so each had nothing more than a passing awareness of the other before Bernstein’s graduation in 1941. However, subsequent years would bring these two Curtis alumni together, forging a collaborative association that, although it spanned nearly four decades, was always, for Lipkin, difficult to define.
Lipkin left Curtis an accomplished pianist, and won the prestigious and highly competitive Rachmaninoff Piano Competition in 1948. But his first love was, and remained, conducting. Said Lipkin in 1974: “I always wanted to be a conductor rather than a pianist, ever since I was a small boy. But when I graduated [from Curtis], at about 20 or so, it wasn’t yet the day of the wunderkind conductor.” Fortunately, Lipkin ultimately found a way to successfully balance performing as a pianist with leading an orchestra, and it was in this dual capacity that his collaboration with Bernstein began.
Although in previous years Lipkin had encountered Bernstein in passing at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, it was not until the summer of 1951 that the two first worked together. Earlier that year Serge Koussevitzky, the center's founder, had asked Lipkin to act as his conducting assistant but, sadly, passed away before the season began. Thus, when Bernstein, who had long been "Koussy’s" protégé and friend, took over the direction of Tanglewood, Lipkin served as his assistant instead.
This initial reunion led to an ongoing professional relationship that culminated in Lipkin making his conducting debut leading the New York City Opera’s performance of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti in 1958. The following year Lipkin accompanied Bernstein on a major tour with the New York Philharmonic where, with two other assistant conductors (including fellow Curtis alumnus Thomas Schippers), he took turns leading the orchestra in cities across Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East.
After the triumphant 1959 tour, Bernstein and Lipkin continued to work together periodically for another 30 years, until Bernstein’s death in 1990. The following year, in 1991, Lipkin gave an interview reflecting on the complex relationship with his former Curtis classmate and longtime collaborator. “Lenny was nine years older than I was, and it was sort of betwixt and between. We were neither contemporaries nor master and pupil. We were too close to be master and pupil. I was very shy and he was a figure of awe from when I was a little boy, so I fell between the cracks. I was always very nervous." But then he paused before finally concluding: "[But] it was all right. What the hell, Lenny was Lenny."
Kristina Wilson / archivist / Curtis Archives
For more information on Curtis history, visit the Curtis Archives.