Letters from Japan and the Making of the World Maestro
by Mari Yoshihara
Publ. 2019, 280 pp.
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
Mari Yoshihara is a Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii and also the editor of the academic journal American Quarterly. In 2003 she published Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism with the Oxford University Press and in 2008, Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music with the Temple University Press. She is also an amateur classical pianist, regularly entering competitions and giving performances.
You can deduce from the titles of the two books mentioned above that Yoshihara is very interested in musical relationships and connections across cultures. I can only recommend you read them. I did and thought them a joy from beginning to end. Yoshihara writes exceptionally well, in a fluid, easy to understand but eloquent style. She evidently has a wealth of knowledge about the topics of the books but at no time is she patronising or attempts to lecture her readers. Her writing is often fluent, elegant and, in a manner of speaking, also user-friendly. She presents facts, history and ideas in a simple, clear way. I have no doubt that everyone will easily understand the various topics she deals with in her books. Whether you are a musician or historian or someone who just enjoys reading, Mari Yoshihara should figure in your book collection or reading list.
The present book, Dearest Lenny, Letters from Japan and the Making of the World Maestro, perfectly fits with what I said about her two other books. It is a moving, poignant and beautiful tribute to Leonard Bernstein, telling you his life and his work from a different, unusual, fascinating perspective: His correspondence and relationships with two individuals in Japan – Kazuko Amano (a woman who began writing fan letters to Bernstein in 1947 and became a family friend) and Kunihiko Hashimoto (a young man who fell in love with Bernstein in 1979 and later became his business representative). As Yoshihara tells us in her own introduction to this book, she “stumbled” upon the two unfamiliar Japanese names when looking through the Leonard Bernstein Collection. She also states she had expected to see Japanese names, such as conductor Seiji Ozawa, violinist Midori or composer Toru Takemitsu, to name just a few, but she had no idea who Amano and Hashimoto were. She could find very little or no information about them in any of the Bernstein biographies, so she requested the letters they had written. Yoshihara was surprised to see that there were boxes full of letters: Hashimoto’s are love letters written over the course of eleven years and Amano’s span four decades.
Having carefully read all the letters, Yoshihara decided to write the present book. What emerges is the beautiful story of Bernstein’s relationships with these two individuals and through them, the change of Japan’s place in the World and the country’s relationship with the United States, in particular, during the post-war years. But it goes further than that. It tells us of Bernstein’s exuberance and rich personality (the “Lennys” as Amano brilliantly describes the many facets of his character in the letter she wrote after she first met him in person – pg 34), his greatest achievements and what made him a global citizen or, as Yoshihara says, “a maestro of the world.”
The book is available on Amazon in hardback (the format I read) at £16.99 and at £12.99 for the Kindle. It is illustrated with photos of the maestro, taken during his many visits to Japan throughout his life, as well as with some facsimiles of Amano’s and Hashimoto’s letters and postcards to Bernstein. All of these work better on the hardback than on the Kindle, however, as they are all in black and white, the difference should be minimal.
Dearest Lenny is more than a biography of the maestro. It is a loving and inspiring portrait of the celebrated musician and two of his ardent admirers but it is also a chronic of the world, its conventions, challenges and politics during the years of Bernstein’s life. Additionally, it is too a fascinating journey through his career and the relationships he maintained throughout with Amano and Hashimoto. The book is structured in three parts, containing a varying number of logical chapters, and a ‘coda’, functioning as an epilogue of sorts and depicting the author’s journey until she completed the present book.
I found Dearest Lenny gripping and once I started reading it, I had difficulty putting it down. To my mind, it logically follows Yoshihara two previous books and perfectly fits with the topics that seem to engage her, i.e. the connections of people and art across cultures. Dearest Lenny makes for a marvellous reading of a compelling, charming and poignant story. It is also effortlessly, beautifully and honestly written. I can only recommend it to everyone whether a musician, a historian or simply a bookworm. It is charming and delightful. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.
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