Leonard Bernstein at 100: Why the music world is making this the Year of Lenny
On the first day of 2018, a dozen cities in Germany, from Augsburg to Wiesbaden, celebrated a new year with concerts that included music by Leonard Bernstein. No matter America’s fraught relationship with Iran, Bernstein’s piano music happened to be played in Tehran on Jan. 1. Thus has begun — with nearly 2,500 events around the globe — Anno Leonardo, or the Year of Lenny.
Aug. 25 is the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth in Lawrence, Mass., 30 miles north of Boston. He was the son of Jewish émigrés from Ukraine. His father ran a beauty supply business that Leonard was expected to take over. Instead, he became the most celebrated, most multitalented and most American musician of his time, and he managed to change pretty much everything he touched.
He was the first great American conductor. He became the first classical music television star. He proved an inspired educator and first-rate pianist. He was the first internationally esteemed conductor everyone, whether you knew him or not, called by the familiar, Lenny. For better and worse, Lenny was bigger than life — a shaman, even.
Above all, Bernstein was a conflicted composer. He planted one foot gleefully in the popular culture of Broadway; the other incautious and questing one sought footing in the slippery realm of classical. For a long while there was a debate about whether Bernstein’s neo-Romantic concert works were on the wrong side of progressive music history, let alone good taste. Nothing would have pleased him more when he died at 72 in 1990, prey of his four-packs-a-day cigarette habit, to know that his lasting legacy would be as a composer.
If anything, Anno Leonardo might easily result in Bernstein burnout. Fall was already Lennified. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra played the 1950s violin concerto “Serenade.” The New York Philharmonic, Bernstein’s orchestra, traversed his three symphonies. The Philadelphia Orchestra, National Symphony and Boston Symphony began their seasons with Bernstein galas. The London Symphony ended the year with Bernstein’s Second Symphony (“Age of Anxiety”) and musical “Wonderful Town.”
In the coming weeks, the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Opera will mount the Broadway operetta “Candide.” Next month, Gustavo Dudamel, a longtime Bernstein champion, will lead an elaborate L.A. Phil staging of the once-dissed “Mass,” and in April Dudamel will preface Beethoven’s Ninth with Bernstein’s joyous “Chichester Psalms” (with which the Los Angeles Master Chorale began its season). The Boston Symphony’s summer Tanglewood Festival in the Massachusetts Berkshires, where Bernstein got his conducting start, will be bloated with Bernstein, including stagings of six music theater works and operas, along with a stellar celebratory birthday blowout.
That’s only the tip of the Lenny iceberg. Sony has released a glorious 100-CD set of remastered recordings mainly from the 1950s and ’60s when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic. Deutsche Grammophon will follow suit next month with a set of 121 CDs and 36 DVDs of live performances from the last two decades of his life. Memoirs will be published by Bernstein’s eldest daughter, Jamie, and his assistant and editor Charlie Harmon.
I look forward to it all. Bernstein has been with me my entire musical life. While in elementary school, I faithfully watched his Young People’s Concerts on television. The first LPs I ever bought were Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The most recent recordings I bought have been hi-res downloads of some of those same early recordings and others, in an effort to delve ever more deeply in their nuances. I am among the generation for whom Bernstein became an incontrovertible musical father figure.
For all kinds of reasons, Bernstein seems more necessary than ever today. His centennial comes at exactly the right time. But that doesn’t mean we will necessarily be afforded the Bernstein we need.
What we are getting in spades is the glamorously irresistible Bernstein of the early and middle years when he could dash off a great show tune one minute, take over the New York Philharmonic the next, and wow the kids on TV and adults in his books.
There were, of course, critics and orchestra musicians who thought him too flashy. There were crises: He watched the avant-garde take music in a direction that worried him for the future of the symphony orchestra. He was regularly accused of spreading himself too thin. An outspoken leftie who would support just about anything he thought was a noble cause, he had a penchant for getting himself in trouble politically and wound up with an FBI dossier and was blacklisted for a couple of worrisome years in the early 1950s.
He struggled with his sexuality but settled into a loving marriage and raised a family. In the 1940s and ’50s, he wrote spiritually probing concert works, spirited ballets, film music, “West Side Story” and “Candide.” This is the music we will mostly hear, and it holds up especially well. In her Bernstein biography, Joan Peyser surmised that this was thanks to his stable family life.
But what happened in the 1970s remains undervalued. At a time when entire artistic legacies are being questioned based on an artist’s behavior and when artistic life-and-death battles over musical style or high art versus low are all but forgotten, Bernstein’s later years — legendarily challenging, musically and personally — demand close and, I would suggest, sympathetic scrutiny. America’s greatest musician was who he was, and we are forced to deal with the fact that the more impossible he became, the greater he became as a conductor, composer and sage.
In 1976, he left his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, for a young male lover. Though Bernstein eventually returned to her, she died shortly afterward of lung cancer in 1978. He never forgave himself. His guilt led him to a life of excess intricately intertwined with regret.
The once young god ballooned into a grotesquely self-indulgent old man. His conducting got just as exaggerated and distended. He suffered crises of faith and even of his legendary self-confidence.
He wrote works that were uneven, but uneven for the right reasons, the grappling with life-and-death subjects. He no longer had answers at the tip of his tongue, only questions — the big, important ones. His last words were: “What is this?”
This what-is-this Bernstein will mostly be ignored this year. There isn’t a huge appetite for his opera, “A Quiet Place,” about dysfunctional familial relationships (of which he was an expert) or his craggy neglected ballet, “Dybbuk.” Likewise for his indiscreet “Songfest” or his studiedly discreet final work, the song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles,” in which you sense the fight to give meaning to every note. These are not works easily embraced, like the evergreen “Candide” and “West Side Story,” shows in which everything feels irresistibly right (even if tunes intended for one ultimately ended up in the other).
In the most important later works, rightness is no longer a given. In “Candide,” Bernstein deliciously mocks our supposed best of all possible worlds; in the tormented “A Quiet Place,” he reaches the far less ingratiating philosophical place of this being the best of all impossible worlds, which is to say the one we are faced with every day.
But would we put up with him today? Kissing on the mouth was his trademark. He kissed the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. He would have kissed the pope on the mouth, his daughter says in a recent German documentary, if he could have.
My first encounters with Bernstein were by curious chance. That lover who broke up Bernstein’s marriage, Tom Cothran, was one of my high school friends. We spent endless hours listening to records and played music together. We argued about Bernstein, whom Tom found ostentatious.
I saw very little of him after that as he moved into Bernstein’s dazzling world, of which he seemed bemused. He is portrayed as a kind of court jester in Humphrey Burton’s Bernstein biography, which sounds about right. For obvious reasons, the Bernstein family and circle hated Tom.
I went to Paris in 1976, when Tom was sharing an apartment with Bernstein, to meet with the Italian composer Luciano Berio, who had suggested I become his biographer and assistant. Over long meals charged to Bernstein, Tom talked me out of it. He felt Bernstein was sucking the life out of him and cautioned me to follow my own path. Instead, thanks indirectly to Bernstein, I became a music critic.
The outcome for Tom was tragic. He went to India and elsewhere in a quest to find himself, contracted AIDS and died an early victim of the disease.
I don’t know how Bernstein ultimately felt about Tom. He was a verboten subject. Nor could I ever get Tom to talk much about the personal side of Bernstein. He felt it was his job to keep Bernstein from being too neurotic, but he may well have made him more so in the process. Still, as Bernstein’s inner monster grew, so, too, did his giving side. Shamans can be like that.
The most transcendent performance of anything I have ever heard was Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Third Symphony at a New York Philharmonic concert in 1987 the night before Thanksgiving. This was two weeks after Bernstein, in the wake of Tom’s death, had helped produce a star-studded concert, “Music for Life” at Carnegie Hall, as a benefit for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the leading New York AIDS organization.
Mahler’s Third ends with a hymn to love. Bernstein drew it out and out, but never let the tension subside. The rapture grew to the point where something happened I have never witnessed before or since. Not content with the obligatory standing ovation, the audience, as though driven by a magnetic force, slowly herded down the aisles toward the stage, just to get closer to the maestro as oracle. It was a communal moment when something bigger than ourselves swept us all away.
Let Anno Leonardo begin.
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Who: Los Angeles Opera
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27 and Feb. 3, 8 and 15; 2 p.m. Feb. 11 and 18
Info: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.org
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Who: Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 1-3; 2 p.m. Feb. 4
Info: (213) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com
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