© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

To become the 'Maestro,' Bradley Cooper learned to live the music

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. We're counting down to the Oscars. And today, we feature our interview about the film "Maestro." It's been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, actor and actress and original screenplay. Let's listen to Terry's interview from last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: My guest, Bradley Cooper, directed, co-wrote and stars in the new film "Maestro." He plays the internationally famous composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Also with us is the internationally famous conductor who served as Cooper's conducting consultant, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. He's the music and artistic director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, music director of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and principal conductor of the Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal.

Bernstein is considered the first great American conductor. He led the New York Philharmonic from 1957 to '69. He wrote classical music. His most popular music was the music he wrote for Broadway musicals, including "On The Town," "Wonderful Town," "West Side Story," and "Candide," and the score for the film "On The Waterfront."

"Maestro" is about his music life and his personal life. He was a very public figure, appearing often on TV and leading the Philharmonic in his "Young People's Concerts." A major part of his life was kept hidden from the public. Although he was married to the actress Felicia Cohn-Montealegre and they had three children together, he was bisexual or gay and had flirtations and boyfriends during the years he was married. Felicia is played by Carey Mulligan. Bradley Cooper also wrote, directed and starred in the 2018 adaptation of "A Star Is Born" and starred in "Nightmare Alley," "American Sniper," "American Hustle," "Silver Linings Playbook," and "The Hangover" films.

Bradley Cooper, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, welcome back to both of you. I really enjoyed this movie and am grateful to have the chance to talk with you both.

BRADLEY COOPER: The pleasure is ours. Thank you.

YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah. Thank you for having us.

GROSS: Oh, thank you, Yannick. Bradley, you wanted to conduct since you were a child. And you asked for a baton as a birthday gift when you were a kid, and you conducted records in your bedroom, apparently before learning how to conduct for real. When you were conducting as a kid, did you just, like, basically wave your arms around a lot passionately when you were air conducting?

COOPER: I mean, I won't take offense to that, Terry, but...

GROSS: No, no. No. Oh, no offense intended.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: But I would - I think there was more - I - there was more musicality involved, but yes, one could make the argument. But no, I felt - I mean, I - obviously, I love music, rhythm. And there was something magical about being able to physically move to a rhythm and that the changing of rhythms always and then having a baton and then in my imagination be able to perceive that I was actually harnessing and commanding that music. I mean, it was really like a magic trick, every time. All I needed was music and that baton, and I felt like I could be a wizard.

NEZET-SEGUIN: You know, Bradley, I did the same exactly at the same age. And I do believe that, you know, maybe we, Terry, we were waving arms passionately, because in a way, the first immediate draw that we have with conducting - and I know if I speak for myself, of course, I was learning piano, but when I got interested to say, how can it be magical that someone waves their arm and just having this magic wand, and music happens, and it's a group?

GROSS: And Yannick, what is your relationship, musically, to Bernstein? Was he an important figure in your musical education?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Bernstein was, hands down, always my greatest conducting model. I unfortunately can't call him a mentor because he passed away - I was 15. Well, we were both 15, Bradley and I. So - but still, from the recordings, the videos, because it's - he's, of course, a very documented conductor, I always felt when, even when I was a teenager, that this is the way I wanted to express music on a podium, just express with all my body and not being shy of showing my emotions on the podium. So I'm really not the only one to say this, but clearly, Bernstein was a great role model.

GROSS: So there's a piece - it's kind of like the musical centerpiece of the film is when Bradley, you as Bernstein are conducting "Mahler's Second," the final movement. And this is also known as the "Resurrection" symphony, and you're conducting with enormous passion. And I want to talk with you about conducting that. I want to talk with both of you about that, and then I want to play an excerpt of that piece. So let's get to Yannick. Let's start with you. This is a very complicated piece to conduct. It - you know, there's, I think, 100 people in the chorus and 100 musicians, and they're kind of on opposite sides of you. So, like, the conductor has to keep, like, turning. He's conducting, like, two separate groups at the same time. So let's start there. Like, how - Yannick, how do you do...

COOPER: And...

GROSS: ...That?

COOPER: ...Two soloists. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And two...

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Vocal soloists.

NEZET-SEGUIN: The more the merrier, we say. But the more people, the more complex it is to conduct, that's for sure. And the magnitude of this piece in terms of the requirements of, like you just said, the number of people doing so many things at the same time. And add to this an organ. So, I mean, this just from a logistics point of view from a - for a conductor, it's the most complex. Now, this specific moment also add to this that it comes at the very end of a very long symphony that's about 90 minutes long. So you're almost one hour and a half into blood and sweat and tears of some of the most soulful and profound music that's ever been written. And as a conductor, you're there. You have to keep your mind cool because you need to still direct the traffic - for lack of a better explanation - well but also being completely emotionally involved in the meaning of this music.

And so, you know, personally, that piece has always been so important to me that when I got the chance in my early 20s to conduct a Mahler symphony, I jumped on the opportunity to start with the "Second Symphony." Now, I don't recommend this as the start because I think it was almost suicidal. But I survived, and it happened at - my first performance ever of this was right after 9/11. It was actually in 2001. And that's really unforgettable for me, of course, because of the circumstances. So back to the movie. I believe that it is - because it's difficult and because it's challenging, not so much for the logistics but really, emotionally, I think this is why it's so important that it's in the movie. And that's really the scene that we see. And that's why, Bradley, you chose this really, really almost at the beginning that this is the music you wanted to be part of the movie.

GROSS: And isn't it true, too, that Bernstein championed Mahler? That...

COOPER: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

COOPER: Yeah.

GROSS: That Bernstein kind of brought Mahler into the canon.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Before Bernstein, Mahler was completely snubbed, overlooked. Everybody was saying, oh, Mahler is overblown. Mahler is exaggerated. Mahler - he was completely misunderstood. And if you think about it, Bernstein, himself, was misunderstood when he was alive. But then now we're few decades after Bernstein's passed. And this is, I believe, where we understand him more. And same happened with Mahler, but it needed someone. And that someone was Leonard Bernstein who really put Mahler into the core repertoire because he was such an advocate but also such a great interpreter of him.

GROSS: So let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I have two guests - Bradley Cooper stars as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the new film "Maestro," which Cooper also co-wrote and directed. Yannick Nezet-Seguin served as the film's conducting consultant. He conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTORIA RUGGIERO'S "A QUIET PLACE: POSTLUDE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Bradley Cooper and Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Cooper stars as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the film "Maestro," which Cooper also directed and co-wrote. Yannick served as Cooper's conducting consultant. He conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. When we left off, we were talking about how Bernstein championed the work of composer Gustav Mahler. And the centerpiece of the movie features Cooper as Bernstein conducting Mahler's Second Symphony.

So, Bradley, what did you do to get as accurately as you could what Bernstein did to conduct this piece?

COOPER: I mean, it's a very tricky endeavor because I had no desire to imitate what he was doing because that would have been a soulless, in my experience, endeavor. And I learned that early on when I did "American Sniper," it was the best way to create a human being would be to take all of myself and the research - and, of course, Kyle was the human and then the character in "American Sniper." And it wasn't doing an imitation of Chris Kyle but immersing myself enough in the world and letting that sort of alchemy occur.

Now, there's this incredible video of Lenny conducting this piece in 1973, in Ely Cathedral with the London Symphony Orchestra, which is exactly what we replicated. But I always knew that I wasn't going to just imitate what he was doing. It was actually finding that middle ground. And Yannick was, in particular, so supportive of me as Lenny finding whatever that mode of conducting is, which was, of course, infused entirely by not only the interpretation of the score, which is what we did, in terms of tempo, but also in terms of his gesticulating and all of that. But having it be original because the goal was to conduct in real time this piece and record it.

GROSS: So the part I want to start with at the end of "Resurrection" is where there's a slight pause in the music - it's, like, one beat - and then the music begins again. And when the music begins again, right after a choral part - or I should say a soloist part, you as Bernstein jump. And, you know, you jump in the air and continue conducting. Was jumping a kind of Bernstein thing?

COOPER: Oh, yeah (laughter). And in particular, he jumps in that moment in that piece. But yeah, there's wonderful photographs of him, you know, levitating above the podium and many recordings of one being able to hear his feet...

NEZET-SEGUIN: (Laughter).

COOPER: ...Stomping on the podium after having been, you know, a foot in the air. So, yeah, that was one of his trademark sonic gifts to his conducting.

GROSS: Yannick, do you ever jump?

NEZET-SEGUIN: (Laughter) I do. I unfortunately do a lot. But - I say unfortunately. I don't think I should be ashamed of it. You know, sometimes we're taught - in school, it's still taught that conducting should be this and that and in a box, and not too much of this and not too much of that. And I don't want here to insult any great conducting teachers, you know, around the world. You know, they're doing amazing work. But sometimes we forget that conducting is about just living the music. And at that moment, that's what Lenny taught all of us in a way. At that moment, the music is jumping. There's this big - it's almost like the whole world is waking up, so one needs to illustrate that. And why not jump, you know, as long as it's organic?

GROSS: One more thing I want to ask before we hear the music, and that is there are passages in this in which, Bradley, you have your mouth wide open...

COOPER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...As if just, you know, like, singing along or just expressing this sense of awe with your mouth, like, wide open. And, Yannick, I think I've seen you do that at the podium. Am I right?

NEZET-SEGUIN: I cannot imagine conducting mouth closed, especially not when there's a chorus.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NEZET-SEGUIN: I mean, conductors - we don't sing. We might moan a bit or whatever happens through our mouth. Oh, I feel like I'm quoting one line from the movie now. But...

(LAUGHTER)

NEZET-SEGUIN: No spoilers (laughter). But what I'm saying is that, yeah, Lenny did that a lot. And I think we all do it because it's - yeah, it's kind of breathing. It's letting even more of the sound feeling open when we let our mouth open. There's something that's, you know, the arms are open, the heart is open, and therefore the mouth is just opening up all that's possible for one of the greatest climactic moments in the music.

GROSS: And, Bradley, do you want to talk about conducting with your mouth open like that, what was going through your mind?

COOPER: It's very funny you say that. So - (laughter) so I did notice that I opened my mouth a lot just conducting to a recording of anything. And thank goodness Lenny did that. In the video from 1973, as I recall, he's only opening his mouth when he's actually saying the words of Mahler's "Resurrection" that the chorus is saying. And I - what's in the movie is the last take. The way it went down is I really messed up the whole first day. And also I had - because I had entered into it with fear, and 99% of the movie I went into fearlessly. But I'd set up all of these cameras really thinking that, deep down, I wasn't going to be able to conduct it, and I'd have to cut, edit - create a scene out of - in the editing room. And so I went into it already fearful. And obviously, when you do that, you can be struck by fear and then not be able to succeed. And so I was behind tempo. I forgot to cue people. And I messed up.

And then the second day, which we weren't even supposed to shoot that scene, I brought in the Technocrane, which is a manner of filming from outside into the hall. And I created one single shot, which is what it always should have been. So because I really let loose that last take, and I did an audible prayer in front of everybody to Lenny, thanking him and thanking them. And we did it one more time. And I really allowed myself true abandon. And that's why my mouth was open. And that's sort of more than I would've liked, but it was so pure and real that I thought, no, this is it. This is it. And it's - it is 100% authentic. So I can't - there was no reasoning behind it, Terry, other than that's kind of what happened organically. But I was aware that maybe that would be weird, but it's real.

NEZET-SEGUIN: It's important, Terry, to know that, you know, it was a crafted interpretation, not on click, not on anything. People were playing on Bradley's conducting. And I was there guiding, and I had been rehearsing. But we crafted an interpretation which would be - to explain to the listeners, you know, you can play this Mahler symphony a million ways, and you can be a little bit more straightforward and just get and not pull so much before the big chords that are climactic. But actually, you know, Lenny - that's not how he did. He was always holding and holding more and then drawing every little ounce or every little drop of life out of this music. And this is what we crafted. And therefore, this is the way you conducted, Bradley, this last take. And this is why it's so powerful. And I cannot imagine how Lenny would have done this with his mouth closed.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: All right. So time to actually hear the piece of music we've been talking about. This is Mahler's Second Symphony. And what we're hearing is the finale. And this is also called the "Resurrection" Symphony. So here's the end. And again, it starts with Bradley Cooper as Bernstein jumping in the air. This is partly through the finale. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN C MINOR RESURRECTION: V. FINALE. IM TEMPO DES SCHERZOS")

LONDON SYMPHONY CHORUS: (Singing in German).

MOSLEY: That's the finale of Mahler's Second Symphony from the film "Maestro," a piece that Bernstein conducted and felt passionately about. And that was Bradley Cooper conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Cooper wrote, directed and stars in "Maestro." The film's conducting consultant, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, is the music director for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. They spoke with Terry last month. "Maestro" is nominated for seven Academy Awards. We'll hear more after the break. And later, Justin Chang reviews "Io Capitano," an Oscar nominee for best international feature. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO'S "COOL")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. We're counting down to the Oscars today. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last month with Bradley Cooper and Yannick Nezet-Seguin about the film "Maestro." The film has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, actor and actress, screenplay and cinematography. Here's Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Bradley Cooper stars as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the new film "Maestro," which Cooper also directed and co-wrote. Yannick Nezet-Seguin served as the film's conducting consultant. He conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal. "Maestro" focuses on Bernstein's music life and on his private life. He was famous as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic for his Young People's Concerts, his many TV appearances and for the music he wrote for the Broadway shows "On The Town," "Wonderful Town," "West Side Story" and "Candide." Although he was married to the actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre Bernstein and they had three children together, he was queer and had flirtations and boyfriends during the years he was married. Felicia is played by Carey Mulligan.

There's a scene that recreates a scene from real life in which Felicia and Leonard Bernstein were interviewed on the Edward R. Murrow program "Person To Person," in which people would be interviewed in their homes. And Edward R. Murrow, who was a famous news reporter, especially during World War II, when he recorded from England during the bombing of London - he was the interviewer. So I want to play this scene where Leonard Bernstein and Felicia are being interviewed by him. And it starts with Murrow's first question.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAESTRO")

EDWARD R MURROW: (As himself) Lenny, it's always, for me, rather difficult to classify you professionally since you do so many things at the same time. What do you consider your primary occupation?

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) I guess I'd have to say that my primary occupation is musician. Anything that has to do with music is my province. Wouldn't you say? Whether it's composing it or conducting it or teaching it or studying it or playing it, as long as it's music, I like it, and I do it.

MURROW: (As himself) Felicia, do you have any trouble keeping up with Lenny's activities?

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Cohn Montealegre Bernstein) Well, it gets pretty hard, Ed. Yeah. He's taken on a great many activities. This season promises to be a very hectic one. Among them, he's writing two musical shows. One of them is an adaptation of "Romeo And Juliet." That's "West Side Story" with Jerry Robbins, Arthur Laurents and wonderfully talented young lyricist Stephen Sondheim. And then he's doing four feature presentations in "Omnibus," the CBS television program. And...

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) You know my schedule better than I do.

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Cohn Montealegre Bernstein) Well...

MURROW: (As himself) Felicia, what about you? Are you engaged in other things besides acting?

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Cohn Montealegre Bernstein) Well, it gets pretty hard to do much more than take care of this household, my husband and the children. And acting takes the rest of the time that's left over.

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) And memorizing my projects.

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Cohn Montealegre Bernstein) Well, I can't help that.

MURROW: (As himself) Lenny, what's the big difference in the life of composer Bernstein and conductor Bernstein?

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) Well, I suppose it's a difference. It's a personality difference which occurs between any composer versus any - or any creative versus any performer. Any performer, whether it's Toscanini or Tallulah Bankhead or whoever it is, leads a kind of public life, an extrovert life, if you will - it's an oversimplified word, but something like that - whereas a creative person sits alone in this great studio that you see here and writes all by himself and communicates with the world in a very private way and lives a rather grand inner life rather than a grand outer life. And if you carry around both personalities, I suppose that means you become a schizophrenic, and that's the end of it.

GROSS: So that's a kind of reproduction, almost word for word, of the actual Edward R. Murrow interview with Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia. And that - what we heard was Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan. So I want to get to something that Bernstein says at the end of this. And this is also almost word for word what he said to Edward R. Morrow in the actual interview. You know, in describing his life as a conductor and composer, he talks about how, as a conductor, it's a very kind of public life - meeting people, having a public face, performing in front of audiences. But when he's writing, it's a very, like, introverted life - alone in a room, not being social. And it's hard for him to do that because, you know, he doesn't like being alone very much. I'm wondering if either of you feel similarly because, you know, Yannick, when you're studying a score, you're not in front of an orchestra. I mean, you're home alone or in your office alone. And, Bradley, when you're writing, ditto for you. Or even when you're rehearsing alone, when you're just, like, looking at your lines, you're going through a process that's a very private, you know, alone kind of process. Do you feel the same kind of split in your lives that Bernstein is talking about in that interview?

NEZET-SEGUIN: I remember when I was a very young conductor coming to this realization that even - you know, I'm not a composer, I mean, not for the moment, at least - you know, maybe one day if I slow down the conducting (laughter) but, you know, in a way, that's not a dissimilar tension between, you know, being the music director as it's illustrated in the film for Bernstein. But, you know, me, even just as a conductor, as you just said, Terry, I realized very young that I should make sure that this is maybe those two very different polar opposites about being always surrounded with people when you conduct. A rehearsal is, by definition, a lot of people around, and you have to entertain these people in some ways in rehearsal. Like, I have to keep the energy up. I have to, you know, be in charge, basically. And then you get back and you don't even have an instrument for you when you study a score to conduct. Its complete silence. You know, a pianist will have his piano, a vocalist will have their voice and the flute will practice their flute. But, you know, the conductor, it's really in silence. So that scene in the movie resonated very much with me, indeed, about the public and private aspect of this, you know, let alone, I can't imagine what it is, you know, also, if you have to compose on top of this. And, you know, as Bernstein says, if, you know, you might become a schizophrenic if you're not careful.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here.

I have two guests. Bradley Cooper stars as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the new film "Maestro," which Cooper also directed and co-wrote. Yannick Nezet-Seguin served as the film's conducting consultant. He conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S "ANNIVERSARIES FOR ORCHESTRA: X")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Bradley Cooper and Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Cooper stars as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the film "Maestro," which Cooper also directed and co-wrote. Yannick served as Cooper's conducting consultant. He conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

So the movie is not only about Leonard Bernstein and music, it's about Bernstein's personal life and his relationship with his wife, Felicia Cohn Montealegre Bernstein. So she was born in Costa Rica to an American father and a Costa Rican mother with European ancestry. She moved to Chile when she was 8 and then to New York in her 20s. She was an actress. Was she a good actress? How's - like, what was her acting life like?

COOPER: I would say she was a great actress. You can still see some of her television films on YouTube. And when she met Lenny when they were both in their mid-20s, one could argue that she was more famous than he was. And she moved to America under the guise of taking piano lessons from Claudio Arrau because she didn't want her father to know that she - her real goal was to be an actress. And - but that was always the case. So you imagine this woman coming from Chile to New York City in her mid-20s, not really knowing many people and pursuing acting. That's a very powerful statement for a young person from anywhere, let alone that time period.

GROSS: She knew that he was gay or bisexual before they married. And I keep wondering, like, why did she marry him, knowing that his sexual orientation was at least partly not heterosexual?

COOPER: Hopefully the movie is exploring that very question, potentially from a viewer, and answering it, hopefully, as well. To me, I certainly understand why she would still do it. Their connection was so solid and it was so integral to both of their DNA when they met and the quality of time that they spent together and what they were able to explore together in every way, in every facet, that when she wrote him that letter and then we turned that into her proposing to him in the topiary maze of the Tanglewood, I'm understanding her. I think why not give it a whirl, as she wrote.

GROSS: So that's a quote from a letter...

COOPER: Yes.

GROSS: ...Let's give it a whirl? OK. So the Russian conductor and composer Serge Koussevitzky, who emigrated to the U.S., recommended to Bernstein that he keep his life and work clean, meaning, I think, like, keep that you're gay or bisexual hidden, knowing it could ruin Bernstein's career. And he also suggested to Bernstein that he change his name to Burns. Koussevitzky was Jewish. He knew all about antisemitism, and he didn't want Bernstein to be a victim of that. And Bernstein didn't take either part of that advice. What was the extent to which he was out?

COOPER: I think that it was clear within his circle who he was. But more importantly, in terms of the movie, which is really what I could speak to, it was about a character who didn't quite understand why he would ever have to lie about anything. And that's why when Felicia tells him, please lie to our daughter, it really paralyzes him. A man who's extremely verbose and never fails to be articulate about something finds himself speechless at the end of that scene, when he lies to his daughter.

GROSS: Yeah 'cause the daughter has heard rumors that...

COOPER: She's heard - that's correct.

GROSS: ...He's gay, and she wants to know if it's true. And Felicia tries to tell Bernstein don't tell her it's true.

COOPER: And he says, well, I mean, she's at an age where I think that it's probably time where she's able to know what it is that - and then Felicia says, no, absolutely not. That was my choice. And he says, no, no, no. It was our choice to be married and live this way. And she says, well, don't you dare tell her. And that kind of kills him, because he does believe that there is a way to understand it. And I think that's part of potentially his blinders of - in his inability to see the pain that he is causing around him.

GROSS: Yannick, how would you describe Bernstein's place in queer history - in queer, like, arts history?

NEZET-SEGUIN: I feel like we all know in classical music that Leonard Bernstein was gay or bisexual, as you put it. And of course, you're absolutely right in saying this. But it took many years to be able to be more open in a field, especially that is traditionally associated with history, things that are really traditional, indeed. And therefore, it's a field that it took more time, maybe, than other fields for people to really feel they could be openly what they wanted to be. And I have to maybe even credit Lenny for - not because he was really out in his life, but actually the fact that he lived this and didn't hide it completely. Well, it allowed people like Michael Tilson Thomas or like me to now live it fully, have husbands. And this is why also - one of the many reasons why - this film is so important. It's not so much that it's about a bisexual or gay character, but more about how complex it is. And it's about love. It's about love of a very strong relationship with Felicia, and yet that could also have something else around - not without its pain, of course. And that's also the other layer of the movie. But it's clearly Lenny - to get back to, really, your question, Terry, I mean, clearly Lenny is an immensely inspiring figure for - pioneering still some of what we see today, including about sexual orientation.

GROSS: There's a scene where Felicia and Leonard Bernstein have a big fight. And she accuses him of being egotistical and showing off onstage and making it seem like only he can appreciate the music so fully, so deeply. And she says by doing that, he diminishes everyone in the audience. And I understand where she's coming from on that. And I wonder how, if at all, you relate to what she's saying. And, Yannick, I want to start with you because you are the conductor onstage who is feeling so deeply, but I'm sure you're not trying to say I'm feeling this more deeply than you are (laughter). But what do you think about that kind of response that the audience might be feeling?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Maybe it's something that Lenny had been accused of in his lifetime because, of course, he was a completely larger-than-life person and therefore larger-than-life conductor. And some of - well, a lot of what happened - and I remember even as a kid reading about him. There was always this sense that, oh, yes, Leonard Bernstein - he's conducting Brahms and Beethoven, but, you know, he's a Broadway composer, really. And then he would compose Broadway and film music. And people would say, oh, yeah, but actually he's a classical musician, you know? So it almost felt like he was super famous and appreciated but also...

GROSS: Dismissed in some way?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Misunderstood. Yeah, misunderstood because of all this. And I believe that perhaps by experiencing the music on the podium in a very intense and noncensored way - you know, there was no boundaries for Bernstein living in the podium. So maybe this could have been something that he had been attacked. I believe that sometimes we can be, as conductors, misunderstood, and especially Lenny because he was so ahead of his time by wanting to bridge all this.

GROSS: Bradley, what's your response to what Felicia says to Lenny?

COOPER: Well, just in terms of what he had to go through, Bernstein himself, you know, he was often asked about his antics, you know, on the podium. And he would always talk about how it was all about his relationship to the orchestra and to the musicians that he was making music with, and not about him performing for the audience. And I think that's what he was accused of throughout his career and that instead it was, he didn't even have memory of what he was doing, that it wasn't a affected gesture at any moment. It was always just completely in the music.

GROSS: Yeah, some people thought he was just too performative, that it was just, like, showing off for the audience and not about the music.

COOPER: That's right, that he was somehow peacocking. Yeah. And instead - and he even talked about how he blacked out at his debut. He has no memory of it. You know, he remembers the applause and that's when he came to, that he was so inside the music.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Well, I can say, really like Bradley just said, that no orchestra in the world would respond to a conductor who would be theatrical in the way of performative for an audience. This is something that many people forget. They think that the conductor is so aware of the audience that they do something for them. But then orchestras smell that (laughter) miles away. And they stop looking at the conductor. And then, therefore, the conductor cannot have a career, or at least not a career in the scope that, you know, Bernstein did.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for the film and for being with us today to talk about it. Thank you, Bradley Cooper and Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

COOPER: Thank you.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Thank you. A pleasure.

MOSLEY: Bradley Cooper, who co-wrote, directed and stars in "Maestro," and Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the film's conducting consultant. He conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. "Maestro" is up for seven Academy Awards. Let's close with a Bernstein composition from the film, the "Prologue" from "West Side Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "PROLOGUE")

MOSLEY: Coming up, Justin Chang reviews another Oscar nominee from Italy for best international feature. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "ALL OF YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tags
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.