T he ever-so-helpful publicist at Tanglewood was insistent. “Unless you hear otherwise,” she chirruped, “he will want you to call him ‘Lenny’.” To everyone, everywhere, he was simply ‘Lenny’.

Leonard Bernstein. Photo © Susesch Bayat / Deutsche Grammophon 

It was very hard calling Leonard Bernstein by that name. Even his family had some difficulty with it. When he was born – on August 23, 1918, in Lawrence, a Jewish suburb of Boston – his grandmother insisted on the name Louis. When he was 15, he changed it to Leonard. And forever after, he was Lenny.

In 1986, I was travelling throughout North America, employed by the American-Australian Bicentennial Foundation in Washington, D.C., to help drum up interest in Australian culture for our Bicentenary in 1988. At Tanglewood, I was ushered into a dingy rehearsal room. The maestro was taking six young conducting students through their paces in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a work he would conduct that summer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There was a smattering of other listeners, but the maestro noticed a particularly nervous figure fidgeting up the back of the room. “You, over there,”...