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  • Print publication year: 2021
  • Online publication date: April 2021

15 - 1970: Bernstein’s Annus Mirabilis


IN JANUARY 1970, a few weeks into the first season of Aquarius, the phone rang at home and when Christina answered a sonorous voice said: ‘This is Gregory Peck. May I speak to Mr Humphrey Burton?’ It was my third great adventure as the new decade began, along with marriage and Aquarius, and it affected the course of my working life even more deeply than the establishment of my own arts series on ITV. Mr Peck invited me to come over to the Dorchester Hotel; he had a project he wished to discuss. When we met later that day he told me he was the emissary of a new production partnership masterminded by Roger Stevens, the American impresario who had produced West Side Story back in the 1950s. Stevens was now in charge of the not yet completed Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington – but once a producer always a producer and he was currently backing Leonard Bernstein in a brand-new way. LB's inner circle consisted of his canny lawyer Abe Friedman, his literary agent Robert Lantz and his manager, previously an executive with CBS Records, Schuyler Chapin. Stevens joined them to form a new company called Amberson Productions, ‘amber’ being the English translation of the German word Bernstein, the much-prized gemstone derived from fossilised trees. Back in the 1940s when he first moved to New York and worked for a music publisher, LB had invented the nom de plume Lenny Amber for his transcriptions of jazz standards.

The witty and wily Robbie Lantz had his finger on the pulse of most important matters in the cultural world: Amberson, he insisted, must ensure that from now on LB's conducting performances would be recorded for distribution on domestic and educational videotapes. Home video was still several years in the future but these were visionary people and they wanted to be ahead of the curve. Their first project was to be a performance of the Verdi Requiem in St Paul's Cathedral given by four illustrious soloists and the LSO and Chorus, all under the baton of Maestro Bernstein.