The time Leonard Bernstein stood and conducted an orchestra with just his eyebrows

16 March 2021, 15:02 | Updated: 16 March 2021, 16:55

Leonard Bernstein conducts an orchestra with just his eyebrows
Leonard Bernstein conducts an orchestra with just his eyebrows. Picture: Broadcast Development Group/YouTube

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

An orchestra and its conductor converse in mysterious ways…

Picture a conductor, and the image likely conjured up is one of a suited-and-booted figure at the helm of an orchestra, waving their arms around with varying degrees of intensity.

But nay, says Leonard Bernstein, tear up your rulebook of concert stereotypes!

Among the treasure trove of iconic Bernstein videos on YouTube, this particular gem shows the legendary American maestro live in concert at the Vienna Musikverein, with no need for a baton, or even his hands, to coax a great performance from the Vienna Philharmonic.

In a – yep, you guessed it – eyebrow-raising display of musicianship, Bernstein uses only his brow (and the odd bit of smiling and grimacing) to give the orchestra all the information they need about tempo and dynamics.

As the man himself once said, “Technique is communication: the two words are synonymous in conductors.”

The wonderful string dialogue in Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 gains a whole new flavour.

Read more: Singer pleads with Bernstein over breakneck tempo in awkward Mahler rehearsal >

The Vienna Philharmonic enjoyed a close collaboration with Bernstein, who has been one of the most important maestros in the orchestra’s history.

Between his debut in 1966 and his death in 1990, he gave concerts every year at the great classical music capital’s Konzerthaus or Musikverein and toured with the orchestra around Europe and North America.

Read more: Leonard Bernstein relentlessly corrects José Carreras in tense recording session >

It was an unbreakable music-making relationship – one that even survived an earthquake, that shook Vienna in 1972 during a Sunday morning performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Bernstein was apparently so lost in the music that he didn’t stop conducting, even as the audience ran for the exits.

In 1982, the Philharmonic awarded the maestro with its Ehrenring, a ring of honour symbolising their marriage – one of playfulness but deep respect, founded on a shared devotion to great music-making.