Me (striped shirt) with Lenny and Michael and some of the local L.A. music community

The focus of this film is the inaugural summer of Leonard Bernstein’s new conducting school called the L.A. Philharmonic Institute. In the summer of ’83, the best college orchestral musicians and conducting students and me, a high school band teacher from the hinterlands of northern Canada who has come down to see what it is all about, descend on UCLA Northridge to find the next best young conducting stars of the world and to learn from the best Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas, Herbert Blomstedt, Erich Leinsdorf, Daniel Lewis and others.

With the backdrop of parties in the Hollywood Hills at Danny Kaye’s house, more parties on the beach in Malibu at Jerome Lawrence’s house, nightly concerts at the Hollywood Bowl with the Institute orchestra and the L.A. Philharmonic led by Michael Tilson Thomas, they are looking for a new conductor and Michael is at the top of the list, several young and aspiring conducting fellows compete for the approval of their mentors and hopefully an open door into the A-List world of orchestral conducting. Any association with Lenny is the highest honor and a pedigree that they will forever have on their resume. It is a ticket for them to a future anywhere in the conducting world.

The film is shot entirely in L.A. when L.A is still a place where dreams come true, unlike today where it is viewed as a place for homeless people, except for a brief flashback to the early 1950s Europe and the east coast of America. In the early 1950s, three wunderkinds are starting out on their conducting careers Herbert von Karajan in Germany, Guido Cantelli in Italy and Leonard Bernstein in America. The godfather of the conducting world is Toscanini who holds court in his villa on Lake Como in Northern Italy. He is the principal conductor at La Scala Europe’s most prestigious opera house, the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Guido Cantelli is his protégé. Leonard Bernstein is Serge Koussevitzky’s protégé. Cantelli is being groomed as Toscanini’s heir apparent until he is killed unexpectedly in a plane crash at D’Orly Airport in Paris in 1956 opening the door for Bernstein to move on to the amazing career he enjoyed worldwide. Karajan stays in Germany unable to travel to McCarthy era America due to his membership in the Nazi Party during WWII.

Back to the present and L.A., auditions have gone on all year to find the best orchestral players for the Institute orchestra and the field has narrowed down to four young aspiring conductors one Russian, one Estonian, one Canadian and one American. The competition is fierce and the pressure heavy. The Russian is Yakov Kreizberg. His brother is Semyon Bychkov the famous Russian born conductor. Their father was a famous Russian conductor so Yakov has a pedigree already. He is the most charismatic IMO but high-strung and nervous intent on studying scores endlessly to get it just right. The Estonian is Paavo Jarvi. He too has a pedigree. His father is Neemi Jarvi a world class conductor in Europe. Paavo is a little less confident and takes a back seat to his friend Yakov but in private is every bit as self-assured as the rest of them. The Canadian is Richard Hoenich. Richard is the assistant conductor to Charles Dutoit of the Symphonique de Montreal probably Canada’s highest profile symphony orchestra at the time. Richard is confident and also the conductor of the McGill University Symphony Orchestra in Montreal. The American is Michael Barrett. His background is a little less evident but he appears to be well-known to Lenny.

The month of July when not rehearsing the Institute orchestra at Northridge or performing at the Hollywood Bowl in the evenings, MTT regales us all with stories of his days at Hollywood High and characterizes Ricky and David Nelson and others who were at HH. Everyone is waiting for August when Lenny will appear. Then, one afternoon it happens. A figure enters the hall from the back with an entourage wearing cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, blue jeans and leather vest. It is Lenny. In reality, he is small in stature which is why we don’t recognize him immediately but larger than life on the podium. One minute he is sitting at the podium talking to us all like the neighbor next door and the next minute he swivels around in his chair and becomes Leonard Bernstein of N.Y. Philharmonic fame, the transformation is amazing.

The rehearsals are exciting. Seeing Michael conduct Ravel’s La Valse mesmerizes us all so much so that the girls in the orchestra all fall in love with him but to no avail as he already has a long standing boyfriend. Everything is from memory, punctuated with comments on how other world famous conductors did this or that wrong. Lenny spends a good deal of time explaining to us how to get the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony just right and Michael Barrett relates a little ditty that the orchestra players at Tanglewood often recite whenever the chorus of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is played. It has something to do with Koussevitzky’s wife having a baby and how she doesn’t know it or show it.

The story goes that Bernstein had a falling out at Tanglewood and left telling them he was going to go to L.A. to start his own conducting school. He gets the margarine king Ernest Fleischman to bankroll it. It only lasts for six years until Lenny’s passing. To survive it needs someone with the charisma of a Leonard Bernstein. MTT is a great conductor at the top of his prime and Bernstein’s protégé but he doesn’t have Bernstein’s personality.

Favorites emerge from the start. Being that the competition is held in LA.  the American Michael Barrett seems to be the favorite at least amongst the local gallery which is made up of members of the L.A. music school community. The underdog seems to be Richard Hoenich because he is a Canadian thus generally looked down upon by his so-thought superior American counterparts. Yakov Kreizberg is European and therefore regarded as old school by the local American gallery and orchestra who are pretty much all from Ivy League American universities and as WASP or JAP as you can get, with a few VALLEY GIRLS thrown in as well. Even Erich Leinsdorf is regarded by MTT as old school an old warhorse past his prime because of his age. He was a concertmaster under Toscanini and I can only imagine the wealth of knowledge he has to share if the American contingent were more open minded.

The film explores the personal lives of the four conducting fellows and we learn about how they got to this place and time. Because I am older and have a class four driver’s license, I am asked to drive the conductors to the Hollywood Bowl every night. It is mine to use for free the rest of the time. There is no pressure on me as I am only auditing the summer therefore I am no threat to the conductors and get to know them well. I have many adventures on the Santa Monica Pier, and in Watts. We all found our own Guido’s that summer; I am sure, as did I.

The film also explores the stress and pressure placed on conductors whose only goal is to succeed in a highly competitive field. The conducting fellows make a bet as to which of them will be conducting an A List American orchestra in ten years. I follow their careers afterwards and the results are in some cases surprising, in others, not. None ever rise to the level of an A List conductor, that is become the principal conductor of one of the five big American orchestras. Only Paavo Jarvi comes close in Cinncinati. Today he enjoys a distinguished career in Zurich and on the podiums of the world. Yakov Kreizberg enjoys a career guest conducting all over the world and is the principal conductor of the Symphonique de Monte Carlo at the time of his passing. He dies young at age 51. I can’t help thinking that his nervousness and the stress of always needing to study the score down to every minute detail take a toll on his health. Richard Hoenich conducts orchestras worldwide before taking a post at the New England Conservatory of Music. He works extensively with MTT on his New World Symphony in Miami and today he works with professional musicians seeking an orchestral position. Michael Barrett went on to be Lenny’s assistant conductor from 1985 to 1990.  Michael founds music festivals primarily in the New York area and works on the Leonard Bernstein Centennial as a pianist, conductor and producer.

After the musical careers of the four conductors are told, the movie may become a documentary and I go off to different locales In Search of the Spirit of Guido with friends to see if it is still alive in A List conductors today or if they even know about him. First stop, Lake Como where I meet up with George Clooney in front of Arturo Toscanini’s villa. From there, we travel north to visit Semyon Bychkov in Prague and then down to Berlin to meet Ricardo Muti. Then, it’s over to London to see Simon Rattle. Next stop is America where we meet up with Paavo Jarvi of course. Then, it is on to the west coast to visit Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles. Next, we visit Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco before heading back to Vancouver and the foundation.

The movie is about the stress and pressure placed on young performers to excel in the arts. It is also a celebration of a little unknown part of Bernstein’s immense career, the establishing of his own conducting school and we get to see MTT in his prime before he begins his tenure as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony for twenty years. It also shines a light on the unknown life of Guido Cantelli for whom the film is named after, a talent of immense proportion whose untimely death robs the world of a great talent and changes American orchestral music history forever. Christopher Best


GEORGE CLOONEY – Leonard Bernstein

DANIEL RADCLIFFE – Michael Tilson Thomas

TBA – Guido Cantelli

TBA – Yakov Kreizberg

TBA – Paavo Jarvi

TBA – Richard Hoenich

TBA – Michael Barrett

Why this film should be made.

  1. To honor Leonard Bernstein for his inspiration and lifelong dedication to the musical education of youth around the world and for his short-lived but highly inspirational west coast conducting school The L.A. Philharmonic Institute.
  2. To honor and remember Michael Tilson Thomas at the prime of his career as the inspirational figure that inspired so many.
  3. To remember the life and musical contributions of Yakov Kreizberg.
  4. To honor the career of Paavo Jarvi.
  5. To honor the career of Richard Hoenich in the field of music education of our youth.
  6. To honor the career of Michael Barrett.
  7. To shine a light on the short but highly inspirational life of one of the great conductors of all time Guido Cantelli.
  8. To remember L.A. when it was a place where dreams still came true.
  9. To shine a light on symphony orchestras and their conductors worldwide in the digital age and help develop new generations of orchestra going public.


The Arthur W. Delamont Foundation

supporting public school music programs

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