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Bradley Cooper laments lack of public awareness of Leonard Bernstein

NEW YORK — Gushing after the New York Philharmonic performed Leonard Bernstein’s music, Bradley Cooper talked about creating the film “Maestro ″ in hopes of drawing more attention to the composer and conductor.

“Many people don’t know who he is,” the actor and director told the sold-out crowd of about 1,800 at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on Wednesday night. “If you go to a coffee shop in New York City, let alone any other state in America, people have heard of ‘West Side Story’ but not Leonard Bernstein.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin made his New York Philharmonic debut conducting works from the movie over an hour mixed with video and audio clips, then had an onstage conversation with Cooper, who portrayed Bernstein. They were joined by Carey Mulligan, who played Felicia Montealegre, the actor and wife of Bernstein.

In an interview with The Associated Press before the concert, Cooper recalled how he got into character during the 55-day shoot in 2022, when he had time for only a brief nap at the end of each day. Bernstein’s voice was the key.

“When I would be in the makeup chair before crew call, when I put that wardrobe on,” he said, “I had to make that leap of faith to stop talking like this and start talking and breathing like him, with a deviated septum and asthmatic and all the things that he had to deal with.”

“Maestro” premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last September and has since been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, Cooper for best actor in a leading role and Mulligan for best actress in a leading role.

Nézet-Séguin, a 48-year-old Canadian who is music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, served as a consultant to Cooper on conducting.

Bernstein, who died in 1990 at age 72, was an exuberant conductor known for occasionally leaping off the podium while calling for triple forte playing.

“We feel that sometimes we’re not as well known as Beyoncé, let alone Taylor Swift,” Nézet-Séguin told the crowd. “Bradley Cooper is our hero in the world of music.”

Bernstein’s children, Jamie, Nina and Alexander, were all in attendance and given a huge ovation when they took to the stage.

Among the performers during a program titled “Orchestrating ‘Maestro:’ Music and Conversation,” 14-year-old Malakai Bayoh got his own 25-second ovation for “Pax: Communion (“Secret Songs”) from “Mass,” and Psalm 23 from “Chichester Psalms.”

An emotional high point was the film’s six-minute segment of Cooper at England’s Ely Cathedral conducting the finale of Mahler’s Second Symphony — a work Bernstein led 19 times at Lincoln Center from 1963-89, including his 1,000th performance with the philharmonic in 1971.

There were chuckles in the audience when a clip was shown of Mulligan as Montealegre in a 1955 interview with Edward R. Murrow that mentioned Bernstein’s collaboration with “a wonderfully talented young lyricist, Stevie Sondheim” — who went on to revolutionize musical theater.

Cooper didn’t attempt to learn technique for a podium career.

“We’re doing a specific piece of music and an individual, so it’s not like I went to conducting class,” he said. Speaking in third-person about himself, Cooper said: “The actor is only trying to conduct Mahler’s Second. But he’s doing it as the character Leonard Bernstein in the film. That brings with it the joy, the utter abandon, the intoxication of the music and being able to draw the orchestra in a way that other conductors hadn’t, his uniqueness.”

Moving across Lincoln Center from the Met after rehearsing Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” Nézet-Séguin led an orchestra of about 60% of the philharmonic’s regular players. They were most impactful in an excerpt of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and the overture from Bernstein’s “Candide.”

For the onstage conversation, Nézet-Séguin changed from his formal conducting outfit into a more casual look — a gray double-breasted suit with no shirt and trousers with elasticized cuffs. Cooper wore a tuxedo.

Nézet-Séguin called for reevaluating Bernstein’s classical compositions, most of which were not enthusiastically received. He cited his 2015 performance of “Mass” with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“Why does ‘Mass’ have jazz and Hebrew and rock and choral?” Nézet-Séguin said. “That was the 1970s way of embracing it. But of course, sure enough, Bernstein was this visionary. … I don’t think the music world would be where it is at the moment if it were not from him, Lenny, opening all those doors.”

Cooper focused the movie on the drama of Bernstein’s open marriage as a bisexual man and brushed off criticism he didn’t devote sufficient screen time to the lukewarm critical reception of Bernstein’s classical scores and his struggle to allocate time between conducting and composing.

Cooper, who is not Jewish, also faced scrutiny for wearing a prosthetic nose as part of his transformation into Bernstein, who was.

“This is everything I could have ever hoped for in the film,” he said.

What’s next for Cooper, a biopic of Herbert von Karajan, the iron-willed leading conductor of the second half of the 20th century?

“No, no. That would be hilarious,” Cooper said. “We’re a polar opposite.”

Nézet-Séguin laughed.

“You can play them all now,” he said.

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