Recording Bernstein’s “Touches” on Bernstein’s Piano

4 min read
Sydney Wang records “Touches” by Leonard Bernstein on the composer’s piano

UCLA music composition student and pianist Sydney Wang boarded a plane bound for Indiana this past March. The destination: Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. The objective: record a 40-minute long album of Leonard Bernstein’s music on the composer’s own piano.

Executive produced by Wang’s longtime collaborator Henry Thuss, an audio engineering student at Indiana University, and featuring Wang alongside an ensemble of IU musicians and engineers, this ambitious, never-before-done project has been months in the making. IU’s Jacobs School of Music is home to the Leonard Bernstein archive – a room with a collection of artifacts from Mr. Bernstein’s life: his Grammy Awards, the desk at which he composed, his glasses, his worn yellow couch. And, of course, his piano.

Head engineer Henry Thuss

“Henry and I have been working together for years,” said Wang. “Some of our best projects began with ‘hello, I have this wild idea….’ Well, Henry texted me in the fall of 2023 to tell me he had just toured the Bernstein archive, and he learned that IU students could request special permission to play Bernstein’s piano. And he had the idea of recording an album of Bernstein’s music on Bernstein’s piano.”

Playing the piano is one thing, but recording on it another. Thuss reached out to the Bernstein estate and, after countless Zoom calls and email correspondences, obtained special permission to record the album on the piano. Wang and Thuss compiled a tracklist of selections from Mr. Bernstein’s solo and chamber repertoire featuring piano: his only piano trio, his suite for solo piano titled “Touches”, songs from West Side Story, and selections from Anniversaries – collections of short works for solo piano dedicated to various people in the composer’s life. From September through March, Wang learned the repertoire while Thuss rounded out the remaining IU musicians and audio engineers needed for the album.

“It was exhilarating and exhausting,” recalled Wang. “Learning around 40 additional minutes of music while staying on top of my other performance commitments and coursework at UCLA was no easy feat. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

As Leonard Bernstein himself once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”

Assistant engineer William Heilbraun sets up a microphone for violinist Calvin Liu
(left to right) Violinist Calvin Liu, pianist Sydney Wang, and cellist Joy Chu record Leonard Bernstein’s piano trio

Months of planning and practicing culminated in March with a weekend of intensive recording sessions held in the Bernstein archive.

“Because of the tight schedule, there was really no wiggle room for error,” Wang explained. “We knew that if we wanted to record all of the tracks on our list, everything had to go exactly to plan.”

Which, as every musician knows, seldom happens in the realm of performance. But perhaps there was a touch of magic in the room that day.

“We rehearsed and recorded everything within the scheduled time frame. I still don’t quite have the words to describe how inspired I was by the professionalism of everyone involved,” says Wang. “Henry, the musicians, and the other engineers were some of the most dedicated, skilled, and hard-working people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. It truly felt like we brought out the best in each other as artists that day.”

Many of the other musicians felt similarly about the experience. All of them were Bernstein enthusiasts, and most had performed his works at one point or another. Tenor Robbie Erickson, who performed “Maria” and “Balcony Scene/Tonight” on the album, had been perfecting the songs for years. He was thrilled at the opportunity to record them in such a unique and personal setting.

Tenor Robbie Erickson (right) records “Maria” with Sydney Wang (left)

Wang and Thuss shared the sentiment. “The idea behind this project felt completely natural and organic. Henry and I are both passionate enjoyers of Mr. Bernstein’s music. As a composer myself, it was a dream to be so close to the music of one of my biggest artistic idols.”

Recording the album has a more personal meaning to Wang as well. Richard Danielpour, one of her composition professors at the Herb Alpert School of Music, was among Mr. Bernstein’s final students.

“For a while, I had been searching for a way to honor Mr. Bernstein’s legacy,” says Wang, “and this seemed a beautiful opportunity to do so. I am so grateful to Henry, my fellow musicians, Indiana University, and the Bernstein estate for this life-changing experience.”

The album, Touches, will be released on YouTube on May 17, 2024.

(left to right) Head engineer Henry Thuss with violinist Calvin Liu, cellist Joy Chu, and pianist Sydney Wang