Judy Waters: Camp Onota's links to Leonard Bernstein

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FITCHBURG — A Berkshire summer camp story representing a unique slice of music history was sparked on the shores of Pittsfield's Onota Lake.

Legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, born in 1918 in the manufacturing city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, was the son of Ukrainian immigrant parents. He arrived in Pittsfield in summer of 1937, as a young adult, to teach music at summer camp.

Bernstein, then 19, found work as a music counselor at Pittsfield's Camp Onota, where he conducted the Onota Rhythm Band. As related by Bernstein's daughter Jamie in a 2016 interview, once at camp, Bernstein met a future lyricist, 23 year old Adolph Green, known for his music knowledge. As a challenge, Bernstein played a game of classical "name that tune" with Green; Green knew every piece instantly except the last piece, which Bernstein confessed he made up on the spot.

At that moment the two became good friends and that evening set off to hike in the "Onota hills." That summer Bernstein produced "Pirates of Penance" at the camp, with Green as the Pirate King. The two formed a life-long friendship, later collaborating for Broadway's "On the Town" (1944).

Tribute to Gershwin

"Letters of Leonard Bernstein" includes words the young music counselor penned to his piano teacher while at Camp Onota. In a letter dated August 4, 1937, he addressed Miss Helen Coates: "Dear Miss Coates, I hope that you are now fully recovered from your operation...I'm having a splendid time here at camp. I get little time to myself but I guess a good vacation is as important as work; and I am trying to rearrange my time to allow practice". (Yale)

On July 11 of that year, during parent's weekend at Camp Onota, news came of the death of composer George Gershwin. Bernstein was deeply moved and spontaneously performed a piano tribute in the mess hall (musicandhistory.com).

In the 1970s, Pittsfield and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council took several steps aimed at the purchase of Camp Onota, after attendance there waned. There was enthusiasm around acquiring the property for use as a public park. A financial pledge came in honor of former Eagle publisher Donald B. Miller. At the time the 48-acre site included a large lodge, dining room, pool, and basketball courts. A fund drive was established and the National Nature Conservancy was consulted. But after months of negotiation the sale did not materialize, as reported by The Berkshire Eagle in 1974-75.

After WWII, Bernstein conducted an orchestra of musicians who had survived the Holocaust. In the 1980s he performed concerts to benefit AIDS research and treatment. With the iconic conductor's work encompassing "TV, ballet, film, theater, and symphonies," he was called "Music's Monarch" in a New York Times obituary in 1990. This summer Tanglewood will celebrate Bernstein and the 100 years passed since his birth.

Following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Bernstein, who deeply admired the president, dedicated his "Symphony No. 3: Kaddish" to Kennedy. As cited in "An Artist's Response to Violence," following JFK's death Bernstein wrote, "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

In 2018 the country has seen continued violence, on city streets, at schools, expressed in hate speech. If music is a reply to violence, this summer around the Berkshires, the reply will be heard. Whatever one's favorite genre, music will stream from lake sides to concert halls, from Pittsfield's Third Thursdays to the Berkshire Athenaeum (downtownpittsfield.com), from pavilions to public parks, North to South Berkshire.

Memories unfaded

Although gone now and written into Pittsfield's past, the tradition of the Camp Onota experience endures; anyone who has known the serenity of a reflective Pittsfield lake, enjoyed live music beneath a canopy of stars, held memory of summer friendship or found inspiration through summer theater and art, has shared in familiar Berkshire traditions. It's hoped that today those important traditions are shared inclusively by people from all walks of life.

Summer memories of Camp Onota did not fade for Bernstein's life long friend and collaborator Adolph Green; after Green's death in 2002, a letter he wrote at age 50 to Bernstein was found by Green's son. In it were the words,

"Whatever our ages, and until we stop all walking, we are still taking that walk in the night around the Onota hills."

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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