How Bradley Cooper Nailed the Conducting Scene at the Heart of Maestro

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Photographs: Getty Images, Netflix

You get deep into Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s new film about the life of the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, before you see the man conduct a concert. The movie, which is now in theaters and will be available on Netflix on December 20 (and which Cooper also directed and cowrote), shows the occasionally exasperating genius compose, rehearse, carouse, and jump from bed to bed. He takes the podium and—cut. It’s a bit of a tease.

But this only means it hits harder when the needle finally drops on a climatic concert of the finale of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. For some six minutes the camera virtually locks on Cooper, who is very clearly conducting the hell out of this gigantic piece of music. You could think of it as the classical music equivalent to one of those holy shit scenes from the Mission: Impossible franchise where Tom Cruise clearly went without a stunt double.

The film’s conducting consultant, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, told GQ that a lot of preparation and very little Hollywood trickery went into creating that effect. There actually was a world-class orchestra and an enormous chorus following Cooper’s baton. Nézet-Séguin was just offscreen giving direction through an earpiece, Ratatouille-style. The result was a musical tribute to Bernstein’s conducting, an interpretation that—like so much in his life—gained its power by careening on the verge of way too much.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, right, coaches Bradley Cooper's conducting technique.


Yannick Nézet-Séguin, right, coaches Bradley Cooper's conducting technique.
Jason McDonald/Netflix

Cooper had met Nézet-Séguin years ago, at the start of his preparation for the film. The actor initially cast a wide net when looking for conducting lessons, and it was almost inevitable that he would run into Nézet-Séguin, the leader of the Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain, and generally a major figure in the classical world.

Nézet-Séguin is an avowed musical populist, but one with a record of taking new audiences seriously rather than pandering—most visibly with a somewhat counterintuitive wager on contemporary opera’s ability to put badly needed butts in seats at the Met. Nézet-Séguin told GQ that it was the mission to spread classic music to new audiences that initially drew him to working on the movie, and working with Cooper quickly proved to be a natural fit. (For one thing, Maestro opens with Berstein’s last-minute, underrehearsed appearance conducting at Carnegie Hall, and Nézet-Séguin one of the few people on the planet who knows what that’s like.)

GQ: You and Bradley Cooper are both Philly guys, right?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Yeah, that's true! I mean, I'm more of an adopted one, but it's been one of my homes for now long enough to feel really like a Philadelphian.

Is that how you get roped into this whole thing?

We met, actually, in New York—we met at the Met. He was really doing his research—he visited many orchestras and conductors, and then came here to meet with Gustavo [Dudamel, the superstar conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who will join Nézet-Séguin at Lincoln Center when he takes over at the New York Philharmonic in 2026]. He was a guest conductor at that time for Otello.

I was also rehearsing, so I went into the hallway and we started talking, and the chemistry worked immediately. I think he could feel something about my approach that was very close to maybe a certain spirit of Bernstein—I really consider him my main inspiration in conducting and in music. So he came to my rehearsals and performances, and also then came to Philadelphia at my invitation, we started talking about it, and he asked me if I could partner with him for the film.

What was your reaction?

So first, I think: This is an opportunity for the classical music world to be exposed with A-list Hollywood people. You know, this is my passion—and it’s a passion of many people in our art form—to try and get to people who think they don't care for classical music. When they're exposed to it, they really think it's wonderful. So, of course, that was a great opportunity, and I thought, I need to be involved in this.

But it reassured me right from the start that Bradley said how committed he was to authenticity—that he wanted it to look exactly right. That he wanted me to advise about everything, anything, so that there's nothing where you sit in the film and you can say, Um, that doesn't really work. That's not how it happened.That’s not at the right place, or the right timing. So I really appreciated that.

Over all the years—seeing how the movie developed, the prep work, the shoots and the edit process, the soundtrack—I really admired more and more his commitment not only to authenticity but I would say to the emotional aspect of the music we are playing. I feel like a lot of classical music movies—not only are they not authentic, but they also miss the point about what music can bring to life. And that's why I'm so proud of this film, because it elevates or makes people understand how the artist's life is all in their art and all in their music. When Lenny is conducting Mahler Two, I mean, there are great sounds and great emotion, but it's because he was living something.

I was going to ask about the Mahler Two. That's sort of the climax of the movie. And you could imagine how you could fake the conducting—use a double or whatever. But instead it’s a really committed scene—Like, you see everything that he is doing. I imagine he needed a lot of help with that, right? What was that process like?

You're absolutely right—this was the main scene. And he just got really prepared for that scene for a good three years. There is a video of Lenny conducting this performance. We don't see him necessarily—the camera's not always on Lenny for the whole duration, but still, that was a great thing. That was our starting point to study how he conducted this piece. So I took those videos and made a voiceover. Some of it was just counting the beats so Bradley could imagine what was beat one, two, three, and four. Some others were explaining why Lenny looked left and right at this moment. Did he cue the trumpets? Did he open his mouth for the chorus? Did he smile because there was an accelerando—all of this.

Then I also made a video of myself doing it to break it down—to be less about the idiosyncrasies of Lenny. But it was the commitment of mine, and of Bradley’s, not to become at all, at any time, Bradley conducting. It should be really focused on impersonating someone else, who's really well-documented. And the other commitment, which was very important for me in preparation for shooting the scene, was to try and get an interpretation of the piece that would really be in the style of Lenny, which is expansive, emotional, always almost too slow, almost too big, stretched out. That's how he conducted Mahler. And that's why it's so powerful and moving. I wanted to reproduce not only what he did, but maybe even heighten it.

Bradley Cooper (in character as Leonard Bernstein) conducts the massive choral finale of Mahler's Second Symphony.


Bradley Cooper (in character as Leonard Bernstein) conducts the massive choral finale of Mahler's Second Symphony.
Jason McDonald/Netflix

So when I rehearsed, we spent two or three days in that cathedral. And I first worked for many hours with the chorus and with the orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, getting them to craft an interpretation which would be a heightened version of Lenny. And Bradley was next to me the whole time, so he could witness this. So before he took the baton, the orchestra and the chorus were already in that realm—because it would've been a mistake, maybe the biggest mistake, if you could sit there and watch a scene with Mahler Two that wasn’t moving you, or if it’s a little too fast or a little too restrained emotionally. So the important thing was to be all out, and they were ready for him to take the baton.

We also did some visualization of being on the podium with empty chairs and just me watching to kind of guide him so that he could imagine the musicians being around. And I also had him wear an earpiece for some of the shots, so I could guide him in real time. Not so much to tell him where to go left and right, but more to support the beats so that he could actually focus on being with the facial expressions of Lenny and being really inside the emotions so that would be believable, and he wouldn't get lost in it.

So it's a real combination of me and him and Lenny and the spirit. It's kind of hard to describe the result. You saw it for yourself! I think the result is very powerful and authentic. And of course, it's a virtuoso performance from an actor.

So he’s really conducting the musicians in those shots? It wasn't Hollywood magic—they're really playing?

Absolutely. That was our commitment! We didn't want to air conduct [laughs]. It was their playing—their own interpretation, that I helped craft—playing for him.

You did it the hard way.

That's it. Of course, it’s the same as A Star Is Born, you know? It wasn't fake—they did every show. And that's what he said from day one. He said, you know, “A Star Is Born worked because we were singing for real, because there was a real audience, and I want the music to be live when I conduct.” And he was right.

Did he come down and have a new appreciation for your job?

We did have a lot of conversations about this afterwards. I'm so impressed at how he coped, because it's one thing to be on the podium when you're a professional conductor and always have 200 eyes on you. But you know, if there's a hundred musicians in front of you, you feel very naked, because everyone is looking at you. The cynical orchestra musician would say, even if the conductor does whatever, we can still play—there is no sound coming from the conductor. That might be true, but also it's equally true that we don't even have an instrument to hide behind. For us, our feelings are completely open. And that's why I use the word naked. And he clearly felt that. He did say at some point that to be in front of an orchestra like this is maybe that's the most difficult thing he's had to do in his life as an actor—or ever.

I also will never forget that even though he found it difficult, once the scene was done, there was a feeling of having reached something so high, so amazing, so spiritual, so transcendental that I don't think he came down from that high very soon—those were really special days. I can't personally watch this film without starting to cry right from the start of the scene. And, of course, the rest of the film is so emotionally powerful, with Felicia and the cancer and everything.

You mentioned you feel a certain affinity with Lenny. Were you able to give any—not musical guidance, but guidance more about the life of a conductor?

We had a lot of discussion about this, about conductors in general, their relationship with musicians, relationship with music. The alternating life of being very lonely and secret. Even though I don't really compose, there's still a big position in a conductor's life of studying the score very quietly and privately. And yet like Lenny, I do love people. I love teaching. I love being surrounded by people. So that kind of stuff we did talk a lot about.

Even the short rehearsal scene with the chorus of Candide—that was very much inspired by Bradley and Carrie coming to Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Orchestra for performances of Candide, where we had the idea of having him share with her the role of the narrator, so he could really experience the full week of rehearsal. He came to everything: chorus rehearsals, piano rehearsals, cast rehearsals, staging rehearsals. The Candide scene in the movie was supposed to be a concert performance, but then Bradley and I discussed and he said, “Well, why don't we do a rehearsal scene so that we can see what Lenny can request from a chorus.”

It's a great scene, because you can tell Lenny is sort of being a pain in the ass just with his conducting—there's so much character in the way he's interacting with the musicians. He's showing off a little bit.

Oh, of course, of course. As always. You know, there are still many things that separate me from Lenny [laughs] in the good and the bad. I'm absolutely not the genius that Lenny is, but I mean, what really inspires me is his lack of inhibition—in the best possible way—in letting himself express the music. Allowing himself to be in on the podium and not having this, I shouldn't show too much. You know, a lot of the teaching of conducting even to this day is very much about: Don't do this too much. Don't be too big, don't do this or that.

That's interesting.

You know, that's not what people want. They want the arms, the eyes, the shoulders, the knees to express something. And Lenny was groundbreaking in that sense, because he was the first one to do that. But the cigarette, and the way of talking, and everything like that? He had other coaches for that—people who really knew Lenny, especially the kids.

A lot of people are going to hear Mahler Two for the first time in a movie theater or on Netflix. From your perspective, what’s next for them? If they loved this, what should they listen to next?

Oh, I think they should listen to every Mahler symphony.

Which recordings?

Uh…well. Bernstein! Of course. [Laughs.] There’s a full set of Bernstein conducting Mahler’s symphonies. And for a second step, I would say: Bernstein's own symphonies. I think it's three symphonies, which we hear a little bit in the film. Age of Anxiety, Jeremiah, the first Symphony, and Kaddish. These are all works that I've been doing with Philly—some of them Bradley came to. Those I recommend highly. Of course, I could say West Side Story. We can go with all the theatrical works—those are cool too. But there's also the soundtrack of the film, which is very much about the more purely classical works of Bernstein.

I also recorded Mass with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and there's a big scene with Mass in the film. And Mass has always been maybe one of his most controversial pieces because he was mixing rock and theater and classical and liturgical music and jazz and Catholic and Jewish. I think, in the 21st century, this message of forgetting boundaries and just bringing all of this together is really much more understood than it was when he was alive. So I would also recommend Mass.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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