Leonard Bernstein may not be the most documented—filmed, recorded, displayed, written-about—classical musician. But there was plenty of evidence that he is, when musical New York celebrated what would have been his 90th birthday in a festival called “Leonard Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds”.
From September to December, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center teamed up for events in varied Manhattan locations. (How often does the New York Philharmonic play Carnegie?) Videotapes and films were shown of Bernstein conducting, leading international orchestra tours, and (memorably) speaking to children and adults. Classical and crossover Bernstein were led by his proteges and musical heirs. There were explorations of his Jewish influences, concerts by teenagers, show tunes, art songs, jazz, talks (and more talks), exhibitions, commemorative books, DVDs, and a 10- CD set. Exciting and valuable, it formed an overwhelming eulogy, and, even when listeners slumped under the glut, they wanted to stay afloat for all of it.
Thomas & Bernstein, 1983. Photo by Robert Millard
Bernstein deserves the attention. American- born and trained, he lived in the limelight from his precipitous 1943 debut—filling in for Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall on a Philharmonic national broadcast—until his death in 1990 at 72. Stravinsky called him a department store of music. Some of his departments: conductor, composer, pianist, scholar, self-indulgent poet, Jew, husband, boyfriend, father, grandfather, advocate, lecturer, television personality, mentor, smoker, party animal. (Again, that’s a partial list.) Hordes of people still tell personal stories, and, judging from Bernstein’s panoramic embrace of whatever he could reach, they may all be true.
At his 70th birthday party at Tanglewood in 1988, Lauren Bacall sang Stephen Sondheim’s cute satire on his own ‘Poor Baby’, about poor Lenny, who still didn’t know what he wanted to be. But he did know, sort of. He wished his composing resume included “Being Mahler”. Thanks to Bernstein’s pioneering restoration of Mahler’s works to music’s pantheon, we know Mahler; and Bernstein was no Mahler— which apparently troubled him. Disconsolate about not being a supreme classical composer, he did know his talent as an interpreter of Mahler as well as of Beethoven and the other greats.
His breakout Broadway scores were his workshop for classical pieces. What this festival confirmed is that the show music from West Side Story, On the Town, Candide, and Wonderful Town outshines the classical. A 1983 essay in Harper’s magazine by the young Leon Botstein called “The Tragedy of Leonard Bernstein” charged that he was “talented but superficial as a composer and conductor, fond of the grand gesture, but unable to generate real emotion”. Surrounded by the usual clutch of young men in a New York theater lobby, Bernstein moaned miserably, “And he even has my initials!” He was actually stung by the criticisms of a then unknown. One person in the world not loving him spoiled his day.
Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (Age of Anxiety) for piano and orchestra was the high point of a September Philharmonic concert, led by Lorin Maazel, on the theme of conductors who compose (it included works by Maazel and Boulez). It started with the unrelentingly mournful Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Bernstein’s symphony (or concerto or whatever Age of Anxiety is) has a psychologically- oriented plot, character meltdowns like the celebrant’s in his Mass, and jaunty, bold brass elements that lack the charm of West Side Story. 2005 Cliburn Competition silver medalist Joyce Yang (Bernstein often put forth young artists) gave a sympathetic, balanced performance.
Compared to the Philharmonic’s tone quality and program, the San Francisco Symphony, which played Carnegie Hall’s opening Bernstein gala, travels light. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, a Bernstein acolyte, owns this fach and started the party with the Symphonic Dances from that urtext of Bernstein, West Side Story. The sumptuous medley’s propulsive tritones (which sound erudite in music by Bernstein’s academic contemporaries) evoke discord between gangs but also spike the melody of ‘Maria’. The yearning oboe in the unresolved line, “There’s a place for us”, snatches at a duet from the Ring cycle. Bernstein never scoffed at selective plagiarism.
Thomas’s gala smorgasbord (liberally cut for the televised version) had big classical and Broadway names: Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Thomas Hampson, Christine Ebersole. It hinted at the spectrum of Bernstein’s compositions, if not the high points. Arias from A Quiet Place (a disaster when it came out in 1983, the year of Botstein’s article) and the musically lightweight opera Trouble in Tahiti moved on to ‘I Can Cook Too’ from On the Town. (Good as Ebersole was, the song had more effect powered out by Leslie Kritzer in City Center’s sparkling, inventively staged version of the whole show.) The Latin rhythmic flow of ‘Danzon’ from Fancy Free (1944) forecast West Side Story. And Juilliard students, cramped into a corner of the stage, delivered ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ with explosive energy. Scores were exhibited upstairs for intermission perusal.
Photo by Walter Strate Studio
Bernstein loved performers and actors. The Paley Center (formerly called the Museum of Television and Radio) was the right setting for “Bernstein’s Broadway”. Showbiz reminiscences and personalities, black-and-white clips not yet on YouTube; ‘Cool’ on Ed Sullivan; Sid Ramin, the very old friend awarded an Oscar for arranging West Side Story; Marni Nixon, who dubbed Natalie Wood’s singing—these all belong in Paley, as do lingering speculations about why 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue flopped. A spotty all-Bernstein program by the New York Pops suggested why he was frustrated with some of his compositions. There were offsongs from hit shows and musical tributes that didn’t ignite. Constantine Kitsopolous, an interim conductor, was not a speaker like Bernstein (or Thomas)—a contrast amply demonstrated in a film series at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Bernstein talked about conducting and showed how he did it, fascinating listeners while informing them. At that art he was unsurpassed.
Last year’s major musical event was the Philharmonic’s Asian tour with a concert in North Korea. But as music director Bernstein had taken that orchestra to Asia and other faroff places almost 50 years earlier (with Seiji Ozawa as his young assistant); tour films were introduced by Philharmonic clarinetist Stanley Drucker, who reminisced. In one clip, Bernstein introduced a concert in Japanese, and in another he fluently recited a Hebrew prayer for peace—in West Berlin. There he played—and conducted—a full-bodied Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven. Seen with today’s eyes, his podium histrionics don’t matter any more than the Beatles’ long hair did.
Other events were hosted by one or another of Bernstein’s three children, who work diligently to keep his name alive. At the Jewish Museum, “A Jewish Legacy” explored the effects of Bernstein’s religious background. Slides and talks were complemented by a choral demonstration of how discards from early versions of shows, astonishingly cobbled and translated into Hebrew, became the beautiful boy soprano section of Chichester Psalms, heard at the Church of St Ignatius Loyola, where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who commissioned Mass for the opening of the Kennedy Center, had been a member.
Mass, whose celebrant and variety of styles mirror Bernstein’s religious questioning, was given the same centerpiece treatment as The Rite of Spring in last year’s “Berlin in Lights” festival: a semi-staged Carnegie Hall performance (this time with the financially beleaguered Baltimore Symphony and Music Director Marin Alsop), followed by a version created by inner city high school students and presented in a former movie palace in Washington Heights. Mass was conceived for hundreds of performers. Carnegie Hall’s ornate columns were lighted like stained glass windows and changed colors. The orchestra was divided by chancel steps, Alsop on a stage right podium, the Morgan State University Choir in the rear, and a lusty Krupke-style street chorus in jeans buried somewhere, backs to the audience. Alsop has worked hard to maintain her reputation as a Bernstein protege. Jubilant Sykes, miked, was an effective celebrant, swinging from complacency to uncertain hope and to hell and back.
Mass is the apotheosis of crossover. It has similarities to Chichester Psalms—bells and harps (Bernstein’s “sacred” mode) plus sassy irreverence: after “God saw that it was good”, he injects, “And it was goddam good.” More pure Lenny: “I believe in God; does God believe in me?” Mahler’s birds can be detected, as can the iconic chords of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the finger-snapping of West Side Story, crossing between inspiration and misfire. Possibly in homage to Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”, a film and performance in Zankel Hall (with Alsop in the audience) showed guest teachers in school classrooms leading the creation process. Students in the audience sang one of their anthems plus one by an established composer. Two groups sang selections from Mass.
If as a symphonic composer Bernstein is an also-ran, his conducting, flashy as it once seemed, was second to none. Last fall’s successors appeared either ready to carry his torch or not quite. The young American Alan Gilbert and the even younger Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel were conducting music that was for them historical. Gilbert, who led the Juilliard Orchestra in Kaddish and the soon-to-be-his Philharmonic in On the Waterfront Suite, Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), and two West Side Story suites, is readying for the big leagues. Dudamel is ready now, as he showed with Bernstein’s beloved Israel Philharmonic. Neither Halil, a single-movement flute concerto, nor Jubilee Games, a concerto for orchestra, can compare with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, particularly in Dudamel’s amazing interpretation. His energy and insight are enhanced by physical strength and control as well as humor. Others give what strengths they have, but Dudamel’s propel him to places they haven’t arrived yet. Bernstein led sections of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with just his head, but has anyone ever seen the pizzicato Scherzo of Tchaikovsky’s No. 4 led hands folded, with just the butt? Or percussionists with peyes and yarmulkes playing ‘Tico Tico’ as an encore? Words fail.
Bernstein’s passport said, “Professional musician”—a gentle nod to his stupendous gifts. He lives on as a transcendent all-around communicator: a brilliant conductor, teacher of children and adults, memorable crossover pianist, and composer of the definitive American musical. “If you miss Mars by a quarternote”, he once told a conducting student, “you’ve missed Mars”. Did Leonard Bernstein miss Mars? Conceivably, but what a ride!