‘He should pursue conducting’ – the real maestro who taught Bradley Cooper to conduct like Bernstein

25 November 2023, 09:43 | Updated: 26 November 2023, 19:49

How Yannick Nézet-Séguin taught Bradley Cooper to conduct like Bernstein | Classic FM

By Kyle Macdonald

Leading orchestral and opera conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin tells Classic FM what it was like to work as conducting consultant on the Leonard Bernstein biopic ‘Maestro’, saying he’d welcome Bradley Cooper to guest conduct his orchestra any time.

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Maestro actor Bradley Cooper could be a great real-life conductor, who would be happily welcomed to the podium of great orchestras, says the music director who helped train him for his latest film 2023's blockbuster classical music biopic.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who holds top roles at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Orchestre Métropolitain in his native Montreal, was also a conducting consultant on the movie Maestro, which is also directed by Cooper.

Read more: Maestro movie plot, cast, release date and how to watch Bradley Cooper’s Bernstein biopic

The biopic, released in cinemas this week, explores the life of the 20th century’s great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Also starring British actor Carey Mulligan as the musician’s wife Felicia Montealegre, the film looks at their relationship, as well as roles of celebrity, sexuality and music in their lives.

Maestro sees Cooper, through extensive study, makeup and prosthetics, adopt an extreme likeness of the American conductor. Speaking to Classic FM, Nézet-Séguin gave an insight into his special role behind the scenes of the new film, and exactly how he helped guide Bradley Cooper’s musical transition into Bernstein.

In the film, Cooper plays Bernstein as he takes to the stage before live orchestras to conduct Schumann, the composer’s own works, and Mahler’s epic Symphony No.2, to recreate a famous 1973 performance in Ely Cathedral.

Bradley Cooper seen practicing in order to convincingly conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony

Read more: Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie: ‘I wish my father was around to see Maestro!’

How is Bradley Cooper as a conductor? The 48-year-old Canadian maestro overflowed with praise.

“He is just so convincing,” Nézet-Séguin says. “He decided to tackle some of the most difficult music for any professional conductor like Mahler's second symphony – the last five minutes, 100 piece chorus, 100 piece orchestra, organ, soloists.”

Members of the London Symphony Orchestra played in that Mahler scene, recreating one of the most famous live performances of the 20th century. Cooper says he spent six years learning to conduct the six minutes of music for this epic scene.

“It was amazing. We can see on the members of the London Symphony Orchestra, on their faces, that they were watching him [thinking] Lenny is back... It's not Bradley Cooper anymore.

“To really obtain that level of acting to me is really mind-blowing.”

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein, conducting in Ely Cathedral
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein, conducting in Ely Cathedral. Picture: Alamy

Nézet-Séguin said how he first met Cooper at the Metropolitan Opera, and heard about the Bernstein movie project and his desire to embody one of history’s most unique and charismatic maestros. The actor then attended rehearsals in both New York and Philadelphia, observing the gestures, style and poise of a leading conductor. Cooper would often sit in the middle of the orchestra, or record moments on his phone to aid study and find inspiration for the film.

“It's not like I wanted to teach him how to conduct from scratch,” the conductor told us. “When I came on, he already the facial expressions, the shoulder work. It was Lenny, he got it.

“What I needed to focus on was the technical aspect of it because of course, every conductor has their own vocabulary.”

The feat of becoming Bernstein with baton on the big screen was aided, Nézet-Séguin says, by the fact that he was probably the most documented conductor in the history of music.

However, he didn’t just want to make Cooper look like a novice conductor. “I needed to find a way for him to do the right gestures, especially the baton or the right hand, all while still remaining in this zone of acting.” This meant there was still all the emotion and the abandonment, typical to Bernstein’s performance style.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mahler with the Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mahler with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Picture: Getty

“I often wonder if Bradley Cooper should pursue conducting,” Nézet-Séguin told us before adding, “and I think he should, because I think he would be a great conductor.

“I think the nature of the man is that I think he will want probably another challenge in his life, another film, another part that he's gonna want to explore, but he's so essentially musical.”

“I think music will probably accompany him all his life,” Nézet-Séguin said. “I'd be welcoming him to guest conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra any time.”