- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Watch an exclusive behind-the-scenes clip from ‘Maestro,’ featuring Cooper’s Bernstein conducting Mahler’s second symphony at Ely Cathedral.
Leonard Bernstein is a figure as fluid, varied, and precise as a symphony.
That idea lies at the heart of Maestro, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper as the American composer and conductor. The Netflix drama (in limited release Nov. 22 and streaming Dec. 20) is ostensibly a biopic, but it studies Bernstein in movements, refracting the man through the music as we see him as husband, lover, outwardly heteronormative father, closeted gay man, trailblazing conductor, and singular composer.
Perhaps nowhere is the coalescing of those selves more evident than in a sequence late in the film in which Bernstein conducts Mahler’s second symphony, “Resurrection,” at Ely Cathedral, recreating an iconic live recording from Bernstein’s career.
As Bernstein, Cooper captures the passion and physical exertion of the man’s conducting style, sweeping the audience up into a transcendent spiritual experience. It’s the only extended sequence in the film in which we get to watch Bernstein at the podium, which conducting consultant Yannick Nézet-Séguin says was deliberate. “Bradley had a vision from the start that this should accompany the resurrection of Lenny’s emotional relationship with his wife,” says Nézet-Séguin. “To have six minutes of classical music conducted without dialogue, it's a very long thing in cinema. The point was to keep the tension up until that cathartic moment and release it specifically with this piece.”
Nézet-Séguin, who is currently the music director of the Orchestre Métropolitain, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, worked with Cooper for six years to help him prepare. Though Nézet-Séguin never met Bernstein (he was 15 when Bernstein died), he cites him as his primary influence. “He was my biggest inspiration because of how emotional he was on the podium and how he was unashamed of being very physical when he conducted,” Nézet-Séguin notes.
It’s that physicality, which Bernstein helped pioneer among 20th-century conductors, that Cooper captures in a visceral manner in this “Resurrection” sequence. For the average moviegoer, the role of conductor might be a mysterious one. “The real purpose of a conductor is to take hundreds of professional musicians and make a unified emotional take of the music,” Nézet-Séguin explains, likening the conductor’s job to that of a singer. “Bernstein was a great interpreter on the podium. The scene in the cathedral has a different emotional result than another conductor and orchestra playing the same music.”
In this case, it was less about Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation of the symphony than Bernstein’s. For this reason, he didn’t teach Cooper to conduct, so much as teach him to embody Bernstein’s style. Indeed, Nézet-Séguin, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra on location at Ely Cathedral for the film, had to adapt his own style to ensure “Resurrection” sounded as it would have when Bernstein conducted it.
“The sole purpose of all this was to be in the spirit of Lenny,” he reflects. “It was very important for me to study his interpretations. It's not something that normally a conductor likes to do. Bradley also insisted I not teach him how to conduct and risk it becoming 'Bradley's style.' It had to be Lenny’s style, and the physical vocabulary of Bernstein. While conducting the soundtrack, I needed to imagine the sound that Bernstein was using in order to pay tribute the right way.”
Cooper had an even greater challenge, marrying the technical elements of conducting and filmmaking with his interior performance. “This Mahler Symphony is already a difficult piece to conduct when you're a professional conductor,” Nézet-Séguin adds. “It's a huge orchestra, huge choir, two soloists, and organ. It's also very emotional, and it's hard to stay focused and clear-headed whilst being so impassioned and emotional.”
Cooper watched footage of Bernstein from this concert repeatedly over the course of several years to absorb Bernstein’s physicality and emotionality into his psyche. He also studied intensely with Nézet-Séguin, particularly to learn the international “Code of Conducting” that dictates such things as the direction of the conductor’s baton at the start of each bar of music.
“I needed him to take all that emotion and that great acting and make it believable, while also not distract him from the emotional space he needed to be while conducting this,” Nézet-Séguin explains. “I made videos for him where I would comment and count the beats. I would explain why he was looking right or left, here he wanted to bring in the violins, there he wanted to cue the trumpets or the flutes and the percussion.”
While Nézet-Séguin did conduct the London Symphony Orchestra for the Maestro soundtrack (which we can see him doing in the exclusive behind-the-scenes clip above), he also stresses that each time Cooper conducts on screen, it’s the real deal. Nézet-Séguin used an earpiece to advise Cooper while filming to ensure the actor could conduct with utmost accuracy and verisimilitude to Bernstein.
The process of achieving the final marriage of picture and sound was one as free-flowing as Bernstein himself. “I would rehearse thoroughly with these groups with Bradley present, and we would craft an interpretation,” Nézet-Séguin details. “Then he would pick up the baton when it was time to shoot the movie, and I would be guiding him with the earpiece. Most of the stuff is conducted by myself with the LSO and Bradley present, and then, in between takes, giving directions and discussing with me and directly talking to the musicians. But we do hear on the soundtrack when it's actually the things that he conducted live on camera.”
How’s that for passing the baton?
Read the original article on Entertainment Weekly.