True story of ‘Maestro’ and the Leonard Bernstein-Felicia Montealegre love affair

His detractors called him a “showman”. But Leonard Bernstein begged to differ. The legendary American music conductor, pianist and humanitarian insisted that his flamboyance on the stage was to inject a dose of energy into the orchestra.

Bernstein and his love affair with music – and with Costa Rican American actress Felicia Montealegre – has been captured on the silver screen by actor and director Bradley Cooper. Bernstein’s biopic Maestro will be on Netflix from December 20, 2023.

Considered to be one of the most influential figures of his time, Bernstein made his mark not just as a musician, but also as a commentator and entertainer.

Early life

Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918, as Louis Bernstein to Jewish couple Jennie and Samuel Joseph Bernstein, who migrated to the US from Ukraine. He was called ‘Lenny’ among his peers. His relationship with the piano started when he was 10.

In 1935, he joined the Harvard College, where he took music as a major and met Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston, who went on to become famous composers. His first extant composition was ‘Psalm 148’, set for piano and voice. His expedition as a musician began during his time at Harvard.

Career and fame

After graduating from Harvard, Bernstein registered at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. It was at Curtis, where he studied conducting a musical performance. There, he took Serge Koussevitzky as his mentor and dedicated his ‘Symphony No: 2 The Age of Anxiety’ to him. On April 21, 1942, Bernstein’s first published work, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, was premiered at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston.

He was renowned for his undisputed musical knowledge and unconventional way of conducting. His famous pieces include ‘Candide’, ‘Mass’, ‘Tonight’, ‘Dybbuk’.

Personal life and legacy

Bernstein married Montealegre in 1951. They first met at a party hosted by Claudio Arrau. Bernstein was infamous for his relations with several men while being married to Felicia and even after her death.

The compositions done by Bernstein are still valued and taught to piano students. Bernstein was honoured with a Google Doodle on August 25, 2018 – his 100th birthday. The Skirball Cultural Centre in Los Angeles created an exhibition titled ‘Leonard Bernstein at 100’. He is the first critically acclaimed American conductor, with seven Emmy Awards and 16 Grammy Awards.

‘Maestro’, the film

‘Maestro’ is a 2023 American film, directed and co-written by Cooper, who also stars as Bernstein. It revolves around the life and relationship between Bernstein and his wife Felicia. It premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival in September this year and had a limited theatrical release in November. The film has been critically acclaimed and has got Golden Globe and Golden Lion nominations.