I have been thinking a lot about Leonard Bernstein lately. Maybe it’s a signal that, having been in Europe for a month, I’m just getting restless and want to get back stateside. And everything about Lennie was emblematic of being an American. Although in his final years he made Europe his home base, the essential phenomenon of Leonard Bernstein took place in New York and Boston over a twenty five-year period from 1945 to 1970. There is no better way to get the full impression of the scope of his talent and charisma than viewing old clips of his television programs, the OMNIBUS PROGRAMS from the mid-fifties and the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, programs done over nearly two decades live from Carnegie Hall and later from Lincoln Center. By today’s corrupted television standards these programs come across as marvels of spontaneity and imagination, free of fussy digital editing or glitzy production values.
Bernstein thought up the themes, chose the music, wrote the scripts and of course conducted everything. And he did this in the midst of being music director of the New York Philharmonic, doing probably over a hundred concerts a year and taking the orchestra on mind-numbingly long tours. And he continued to compose, although that activity unsurprisingly became increasingly difficult as his fame and public persona grew.
You can actually look at the drafts of his television scripts, written in longhand on yellow legal pads, and see that the programs were entirely his own invention. They are available for online viewing at the Library of Congress. This one is for a program devoted to Shostakovich. And this one is about Aaron Copland. In discussing Copland, he doesn’t just talk about the user-friendly stuff like Hoedown and Appalachian Spring. He also makes a case for his more dissonant, angular music, introducing the seldom-heard “Statements” for orchestra.
It’s important to realize that these programs aired on national television during a time when there were only four networks, so in effect, Leonard Bernstein talking about Copland or Shostakovich or Beethoven or Mahler was a big deal for the American television audience. They weren’t buried in some graveyard spot on cable, but rather were shown on prime time on CBS and NBC.
Millions of viewers tuned in to see classical music intelligently discussed and performed. Try to imagine any conductor today having that kind of audience and that kind of exposure to educate a vast audience about serious art. Try to imagine in 2010 there being classical music of ANY kind analyzed and illuminated on television. FORGET IT.
By the early 1960’s Bernstein was all over the media to the point where it was easy to get annoyed with him. I remember going back and forth in my opinion of him, at times finding him de trop. I felt similarly about Allen Ginsberg, who also had a knack for getting his face in front of a camera and willfully, annoyingly making himself into an icon. As a result I didn’t really come to appreciate Ginsberg until after his death. Now I deeply mourn the absence of an engaged poet who could articulate our communal experience the way Ginsberg could.
To get a flavor of Bernstein’s gift look at THIS CLIP of him conducting the last few minutes of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This is from a later period, the early seventies, probably just after he’d left the New York Philharmonic. I don’t know the details or circumstances of this performance. It looks like it’s outside, on tour perhaps. It’s not Tanglewood and certainly not Symphony Hall in Boston. I recognize the players, as I once in a while used to substitute in the clarinet section while I was in college.
Tchaikovsky #5 is not a piece I would willingly seek out, but to see and hear Bernstein do it makes one revalue the piece. He so deeply believes in every shift and turn of the material. His face is expressive of the emotional tenor of the music, and even though the BSO players are as poker-faced as any orchestra, simply counting and playing their best, they are obviously absorbing the signals coming from both the conductor’s gestures and face. His physical gestures are absolutely in tune with the music. Studying how he uses the baton, his hands, his arms, his entire body, reminds us that conducting is not just keeping an orchestra together, it’s also, when done like this, a way of choreographing the sound, of making the music visible.
After performances Lennie would stand backstage, soaked in sweat, cigarette in hand, hugging and kissing everyone within reach. On the emotional level he was immensely generous (some even said omnivorous). And from my few experiences with him I can testify that his personality was so strong and charismatic that he virtually sucked the air out of any room he walked into. No matter how many people might be gathered together, if Bernstein were one of them, he was de facto the center of attention. He could also be extremely naughty. In 1970, at a long boring dinner party at Harvard, I had the chance to sit next to him for several hours, during which he smoked all his own cigarettes and then finished off the pack I was smoking. He had just come from conducting the Beethoven 9th with the Boston Symphony. I asked him how he liked working with the BSO, which had been the orchestra he’d first worked with as a student at Tanglewood in the 1940’s. He made a sweeping, ecstatic gesture and said “It was fantastic, there was cum all over the stage.”
Now, just for comparison, look at THIS CLIP of the same music conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The polar opposite of Bernstein, Herb the K is in his own splendidly solipsistic orbit, eyes closed, conducting as if leading a battle charge. No sticky business on this stage—just discipline and order. The production values of the video are thoroughly staged (von Karajan was definitely a hands-on kinda guy when it came to managing his self-image). Check out those soft focus trumpets, all neatly lined like clarions on a castle rampart! It’s an anal compulsive’s dream. Where Bernstein was open and almost over the top emotionally and physically, von Karajan is all about dominance and control. But some people really get off on that sort of thing.
Here are two other clips of Bernstein. In THIS ONE he is rehearsing Shostakovich. He’s imploring an orchestra to open up, to take big risks. He doesn’t give a damn if he’s making a fool of himself, shouting and screaming, wailing and whining—but by this point in his life he knew he was a star and knew that the players would take him seriously and go where he asked them.
And then, for a total roller-coaster ride, here he is conducting a French orchestra in LA VALSE by Ravel.
Contemplating Bernstein’s own body of classical concert music is more problematic. Any discussion of him must acknowledge that by the time he was fifty the world of contemporary classical music had become mired in ideology and dueling orthodoxies. Bernstein had absolutely no interest in either the European postwar avant garde as typified by Stockhausen, Boulez or Xenakis, nor for the then current American experimental route typified by JOHN CAGE, although he did at least give this music a chance in exploratory concerts with the NY Philharmonic, conducting both Cage’s “Atlas Eclipticalis” and some Morton Feldman pieces. He was respectful but ultimately indifferent to the older, gnarlier American atonalists like Sessions or Carter. Caught in a crack in history, he felt out of it as a composer, openly defensive about his unwillingness to give up his natural inclinations towards a simpler, tonally more conservative style. In his salad days as a young conductor he’d championed Copland, Roy Harris, William Schuman and David Diamond.
A little known fact is that it was the thirty-one year-old Leonard Bernstein who conducted the world premiere of the TURANGALILA-SYMPHONIE in 1949. But he didn’t seem to get that either, and as far as I know he never conducted it or any other Messiaen again.
Unfortunately his own creative crisis came at exactly the same time that his enormous fame and superstar status peaked, making it all the more difficult for him to locate the private inner muse that might have led him to a fruitful maturity as a composer in the manner of his great idol, Mahler.
His early symphonic works were rapidly written and reflect his youthful bedazzlement with Copland, Stravinsky, Bartòk, and of course with jazz. One of his best pieces is the early “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,” a piece that is quintessential Bernstein, even in its cheeky, wiseass title. You can feel the youthful, nervous bebop energy that he must have exuded as a student in the mid forties, the same period that gave birth to Kerouac and Charlie Parker.
The Jeremiah Symphony and the Age of Anxiety symphony get a lot of performances today, almost as many as the Copland pieces that inspired them. I think they are OK, but they are sketchy in their quality in a way that Copland’s are not. Bernstein is best with up-tempo, jazzy scenes, like the breezy, engaging “Masque” movement in Age of Anxiety. But when he goes for the big, serious statement things feel ponderous and overblown, a trait that gets even more difficult to handle in his big, very very serious Kaddish Symphony, written in the early 1960’s at the very peak of his media fame and dedicated to the memory of JFK.
The Kaddish Symphony featured his own long rambling spoken monologue, performed in its American premiere by his actress wife Felicia Montealegre. The text is a philosophical harangue with his Creator. (“Why have You taken away Your rainbow, That pretty bow You tied round Your finger To remind You never to forget Your promise?…”)
It grossed me out when I first heard it, and I’ve quite honestly never really been able to love it. I didn’t much like the Chichester Psalms, either, although by now I understand the sincerity of his intent.
In fact, I’m hard put to feel unqualified admiration for any of Bernstein’s “serious” orchestral works, with the sole exception of the engagingly simple Plato-meets-Bartòk Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion.
His best music is that drawn from his theater works—the Candide Overture and of course the symphonic dances from West Side Story, music that has every right to be as famous as it is. And let’s get it said right here and now that the Bernstein-Sondheim-Robbins West Side Story is the finest, most inspired piece of musical theater work by any American.
I get the feeling that Bernstein’s mind was so active and so restless that he needed things to come quickly or he would lose interest. His big, serious concert works feel like they were composed hastily, in between very high profile conducting engagements or perhaps on one of his infrequent holidays.
At times I’m reminded of another brilliant, charismatic New Yorker, also Jewish and Harvard educated: J. Robert Oppenheimer. He, like Bernstein, was a frighteningly quick study who could do just about anything he put his mind to. And, like Bernstein, he had the powers of persuasion to convince people of his ideas. (And like Lennie, Oppie also chain-smoked himself to death.)
But what the Nobel laureate physicist I.I Rabbi said about Oppenheimer could also apply to Bernstein. Rabbi, pondering Oppenheimer’s great fame but relatively small substantial achievement in terms of research and discovery, said that Oppenheimer lacked “Sitzfleisch.” That’s a colorful German/Yiddish term meaning the ability to sit patiently with a problem for year after year, enduring the tedium of solitude and data crunching in order to come to a mega-revelation. Wagner had Sitzfleisch (I also read he suffered from hemorrhoids, which is probably a related condition…). Tolstoy had Sitzfleisch, as did Goethe and Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust.
The Nobel Prize is presumed to be the reward for hundreds of thousands of hours of Sitzfleisch. Leonard Bernstein, always a thoughtful and inquiring intellect, nonetheless seemed rarely to have time for the grueling long hours of solitary struggle with the fractious, stubborn materials of composition. So he was best when something could come out rapidly and effortlessly. The Candide Overture is an expression of his quicksilver mind and extrovert personality—Bernstein at his best as a composer, witty, intelligent, communicative and generous.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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