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Bernstein's Boston years

A few years ago, an old-timer from the Boston Latin School thrust a book into my hands: ``Family Matters: Sam, Jennie, and the Kids ," by Burton Bernstein . It is the gently told, affecting story of a teenager named Samuel Joseph Bernstein who traveled from Ukraine to Roxbury and quickly made his fortune in the new world. He and his wife had a daughter and two sons. One was the author, Burton. The other became a worldwide celebrity: Leonard Bernstein.

Two Harvard professors, Carol Oja and Kay Kaufman Shelemay , aided by a gaggle of students, have been rooting around Leonard Bernstein's Boston years in preparation for the ``Leonard Bernstein: Boston to Broadway" festival to be held Oct. 12-14, primarily at Harvard. There will be movies, seminars, concerts, and lectures about ``Lenny," as almost everyone called him. Check out the website .

Bernstein was very much a Boston boy. He was the rare paying student at public BLS, because his family lived in Newton. He co-wrote his graduating class's valedictory song, ``All for One and One for All," which had rare, forgettable Bernstein lyrics, e.g.: ``Worthy servants of the state/ Pioneers have gone before us. . ."

Bernstein studied piano at the New England Conservatory while in high school, was active at Congregation Mishkan Tefila with its Vienna-trained music director Solomon Braslavsky , and put on numerous amateur theatricals in Sharon, where his family eventually moved. ``All his significant life ritual s took place here in Boston," says Shelemay, ``his bar mitzvah, his graduations, his wedding, and his son's bar mitzvah."

``Bernstein was very much shaped by the Boston Jewish experience," says Brandeis professor of American Jewish history Jonathan Sarna . ``In Midwestern American cities, where Germans dominated, they had the sense that Eastern European Jews should be in their place. It was easier for East ern European Jews to rise here."

Ishmael gets that lovely line in ``Moby-Dick": ``A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." For Bernstein, Harvard was his whale ship. A towering talent, he made connections with composer Aaron Copland and the conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos . Shortly after graduating, he entered the ambit of Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky , who packed him off to Tanglewood. Bernstein became a fixture at Tanglewood and also taught for two years at Brandeis, where he later endowed a scholarship in his father's name.

Oja, Shelemay, and co. have untangled a thick skein of Boston-based Bernstein-iana. They have interviewed men and women who paid 25 cents to see young Leonard's notorious cross-dressing production of ``Carmen" at the Singers' Inn in Sharon. At the Library of Congress, graduate student Ryan Bañagale unearthed a previously unknown Bernstein arrangement of George Gershwin's ``Rhapsody in Blue" for flute, clarinet, accordion, voice, percussion, and . . . ukulele.

Bernstein's ``Rhapsody," which will be performed at the Harvard festival, was probably first heard at Pittsfield's Camp Onota , where the future maestro was a music counselor. At Onota, Bernstein mounted ``Pirates of Penzance," starring a tall boy from the Bronx named Adolph Green . Bernstein and Green later collaborated on two musicals, ``On the Town" and ``Wonderful Town."

The wonderful town in question, of course, was New York, which eventually embraced Bernstein more warmly than the city of his birth. Bernstein biographer Joan Peyser explains how Koussevitzky furiously jawboned the BSO to appoint Bernstein as his successor, in vain. Peyser writes that an unmarried, middle-class American Jew was not going to seize the baton of Boston's great orchestra.

Nor did he. In 1949, the BSO appointed the sophisticated Alsatian lady-killer (and World War II collaborator? See this space, Sept. 19, 2002 ) Charles Munch , then with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, as its new head. ``Koussevitzky's 29-year-old protege, Leonard Bernstein, had long had the inside track with his sponsor," Time magazine wrote, ``but not with the symphony's trustees."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is

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