Lenny, the indispensable

Los Angeles Times Music Critic

“He drank a lot,” Ned Rorem says of Leonard Bernstein in a new 11-part radio documentary that has begun airing weekly around the country and starts tonight at 7 on KMZT-FM. “I remember he even drank for breakfast. That impressed me.”

Bernstein’s drinking impressed me as well. Except when he was on the podium, Bernstein, in my memory, nearly always had a glass of Scotch in hand.

And nothing impressed me more than a boozy Bernstein performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad,” with the Chicago Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall in New York in 1988. The concert began late. Shortly before curtain time, Bernstein was reportedly discovered in his apartment at the nearby Dakota in a drunken stupor.

After being thrown into a cold shower, rushed to the concert hall and hurtled on stage, he came to life. No, he didn’t come to life, he embodied it, in an unforgettably fervent reading that encompassed what felt like the great extremes of human experience -- deepest despondency and ecstatic elation.

The “Leningrad” was meant in 1941 to stir a city under siege and show the world that the Russian spirit couldn’t be broken by Nazi invaders. Written to glorify its composer as well, the symphony is perhaps helpful populist art, but cheap. Lenny’s “Leningrad,” by contrast, was neither useful nor cheap. It was a musical place in which the power of sound was crushing, both physically and emotionally.

For those 90 Shostakovich minutes, I understood little of what it was like to live through the Nazi occupation of Leningrad but an awful lot of what it must have been like to be Lenny (we all called him Lenny, whether we knew him or not). I was sure I sensed his pain and joy, his nobility and brazenness. And for those 90 minutes, I was convinced that Bernstein was the greatest conductor who had ever lived.

Afterward, an invited crowd assembled in the green room to witness Bernstein receive an honor from Sony Classical. More Scotch in hand, he was wearing a Japanese robe two sizes too small. He kissed everyone in the room. One record company employee, not knowing enough to keep his mouth shut, found a tongue where he hadn’t expected it. A Sony executive placed a ribbon with an unbelievably garish medal on Bernstein’s bare chest (the robe was becoming increasingly undone), and Lenny wore it grotesquely, obscenely.

Emboldened by the Fellini-esque atmosphere, I told Bernstein that until that evening, I had always disliked Shostakovich’s symphony. He burst out laughing and dismissed the score as a “Nazi ‘Bolero.’ ” His remarks about the composer can’t be reproduced in a family newspaper.

I still believe that Bernstein was the greatest conductor who ever lived. But that doesn’t mean that Bernstein, who was so many things musically and who once said he wanted to be the most versatile man in the world, wasn’t also the most problematic conductor who ever lived. It doesn’t mean that we’ve come close to sorting out his legacy. And it certainly doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with my assessment of him. Where I find transcendence in the outlandishly slow performances of his last years, others see an ego disturbingly out of control.

So, periodically, it becomes necessary to reconsider Leonard Bernstein, the musician we simply cannot ignore. There is no particular occasion for the new cache of Bernsteiniana that has suddenly appeared. Thursday is merely the 14th anniversary of his death, and we won’t be celebrating his 90th birthday until the next presidential election, four years hence. Still, at hand now are a nine-DVD set of 25 Young People’s Concerts, five CD box sets of his recordings for Deutsche Grammophon made during the last 13 years of his life, several new CDs of his music on various labels and a reissue of his first book, “The Joy of Music.”

Serious musician and showman

When describing Bernstein, one begins with a list. He was conductor, pianist, composer of concert music and Broadway shows, writer, educator, mentor, scholar, wit. When he filled in for an indisposed Bruno Walter, conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1943, the New York Times put him on the front page. The following year, his “Jeremiah” Symphony won the New York Music Critics Circle Award.

On Sept. 26, 1957, his “West Side Story” opened in Manhattan. Two months later, the New York Philharmonic appointed him the first U.S.-born and -trained music director of a major American orchestra. In January 1958, he broadcast the first of his Young People’s Concerts.

If not the most versatile man in the world, he was, without doubt, the most versatile in music. And that was both a blessing and a curse. We easily forget the elitist classical music community’s suspicions of popular culture. Serge Koussevitzky, for instance, the Russian music director of the Boston Symphony and Bernstein’s mentor, insisted that his Lenushka cure himself of the Broadway bug after the success of his protege’s first show, “On the Town.”

Far more troubling for Bernstein were the criticisms that his highly theatrical conducting style was the mark of a showman rather than a serious musician. The reviews in Bernstein’s early years at the New York Philharmonic were hardly all positive. In fact, his populist touch, which included speaking to the audience on the first nights of programs, so infuriated hidebound critics that the orchestra started calling those programs dress rehearsals to keep the newspapers away.

How wrong that attitude seems now. American orchestras bend over backward to find American music directors, lust after conductors who have the popular touch, and expect even stuffed shirts to speak to audiences. When it comes down to it, versatility is often a bigger selling point these days than great music-making.

But in listening to the early parts of the radio documentary (which KCRW-FM also will air, in two parts, on Thanksgiving and the day after), as well as revisiting the Young People’s Concerts for the first time since my youth, hearing various new interpretations of some of Bernstein’s most popular and most controversial music on recent CDs and returning to the late Deutsche Grammophon recordings, I wonder if some of the suspicion wasn’t warranted.

Bernstein’s versatility -- he did everything, by the way, incredibly well -- was to a considerable degree part of what was, in essence, a deeply divided personality. The powerful forces within him could be as destructive as constructive. It took him a lifetime to pull all the threads together.

In one Young People’s Concert, Bernstein makes a fascinating observation about Mahler -- how he was always both one thing and its opposite. Mahler, Bernstein says, was split in two by being a conductor and a composer. His nature vacillated between childlike wonder and grown-up angst. He was a Romantic who led the Modernist movement. He grew up in Bohemia, at the crossroads between East and West, and looked in both directions.

Describing Mahler as two men locked in the same body -- a “double man” -- Bernstein calls him “one of the most unhappy people in history.”

How much was Bernstein describing himself? He shared Mahler’s division between conductor and composer. As a composer, he split again, between classical and popular music. But there were many other large Bernsteinian divides as well. Brought up a devout Jew, he struggled between doubt and faith, and his music often addressed these issues. He had an insatiable sybaritic side and an insatiable spiritual side. In the early segments of the radio documentary, he is described as having had a capacity for tremendous generosity but also for cruelty. He was bisexual and probably bipolar. Indeed, wherever there could be two sides to anything, he was both.

The Young People’s Concerts, which were broadcast between 1958 and 1972, are now part of American musical lore. They are personal, richly informative, entertaining. Bernstein is ever the larger-than-life personality. And they are famous for being noncondescending.

In fact, they can be condescending. Also pretentious, biased, even dishonest. These are not school, they are performances, and there is hardly a moment when Bernstein doesn’t show off. Watching the programs now, I realize that I didn’t learn what sonata form is from Bernstein’s clever descriptions of it on television. As a kid, I simply fell for the guy because he seemed so full of music.

I may even have sensed, from his broadcast celebrating Shostakovich’s 60th birthday, that Bernstein was working just a little too hard to defend Shostakovich against his attackers. Bernstein, of course, is defending his own concert music, which was often accused of having some of Shostakovich’s glibness. But worse for the with-it Bernstein, his music was also derided for being, like Shostakovich’s, old-fashioned, when in the ‘50s and ‘60s the avant-garde was the rage.

Ironically, now that the Young People’s Concerts have become dated -- not many modern kids are likely to put up with fuzzy old black-and-white video, though the shows may be addictive to adults of a certain age -- Bernstein’s music is undergoing a major reevaluation. No one may need convincing of the greatness of “West Side Story.” But “Mass” and the “Kaddish” Symphony, two of this composer’s most self-indulgent works, works that were downright ridiculed when they premiered, have demonstrated a remarkable lasting power.

In “Kaddish,” an anguished composition for narrator, chorus and orchestra, written in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, Bernstein argues with, even attacks, God. This is his most conflicted score, and audiences and critics alike cringed at its excesses, especially the pompous narration. But that pomposity explodes into one of the most moving hymns of love and wonder in all his music -- it is the same sentiment found in “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” and “Make Our Garden Grow” from “Candide,” only writ symphonically large.

Ten years later, Bernstein went even further in his push-pull with God in “Mass,” written again in memory of JFK and commissioned to open the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Here he makes a grand effort to synthesize his popular and classical sides into what, at the time, looked like a pathetic hippie pageant, his midlife crisis plastered all over the Washington stage. Bernstein had left the New York Philharmonic, was about to leave his wife and was living intemperately. But “Mass” too can now be heard as Bernstein’s genuine attempt to come to terms with his divided personality, as a near-heroic reach for transcendence.

How far is too far?

Recent recordings of “Kaddish” and “Mass” bring new emphasis to the ways in which these works were key in Bernstein’s growth. The “Kaddish,” by Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony and Chorus and Orchestra, maybe goes too far in that direction. It contains a rewritten text by Bernstein’s older daughter, Jamie, in which she transfers the composer’s confrontation with his Father into a personal confrontation with her father. Slatkin’s interpretation is on the mild side, but the restraint brings out much that is musically beautiful and sophisticated in the score.

Kent Nagano’s recording of “Mass” with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is likewise more restrained and refined than Bernstein’s brazen original performance. It does a more effective job of integration than Bernstein could possibly have done at the time he wrote the work -- he was far too close to it, the spiritual wounds were still raw and gaping -- and will deservedly win “Mass” new admirers.

But for true revelation, turn to the Deutsche Grammophon box sets, devoted to Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Sibelius and American music. Most of the performances, except for the American set, are from Europe and feature the Vienna Philharmonic, with which Bernstein developed close ties during the last two decades of his life.

What is remarkable about these performances is just how many aspects of Bernstein’s personality they reflect. As Bernstein grew older, as he indulged in his fantasies, his composing became more difficult. He never resolved his conflicts. His late opera, “A Quiet Place,” is a study in angst, how to balance the inner life with uncontrollable urges.

But in these late recordings, in which tempos are often shockingly slow and interpretations imposingly grand, Bernstein finally found a way to cope with his split personality. He made himself, musically, into a very large vessel. Namely, he slowed everything down dramatically, allowing him time to apply more ideas to this music than anyone else ever had.

Be it in Brahms, Sibelius or Copland, he produced a symphonic sound so sensual that he seemed to fondle each note. His climaxes became orgasmic. He hung on and would not let go until every ounce of passion was spent. If that took a long time, it took a long time.

The remarkable result was that, in the process of completely succumbing to his ego, he also transcended it. Hanging on became a kind of weightlessness and a complete transformation of the music. When Bernstein recorded “Appalachian Spring” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982, Copland was said not to have recognized his own score. That might have been because he was already suffering from dementia. But it also might have been because Bernstein had created an alternate “Appalachian Spring” universe.

I remember people complaining about Bernstein’s carrying-on, his wiggling at the podium and all the rest, during a live performance of Copland’s ballet at the Hollywood Bowl. But who cares about any of that now? No other conductor reached such a level of ecstatic mysticism while at the same reveling in a near-indecent corporeality. No other conductor had ever made those extremes one.

In the end, Bernstein’s conflicts killed him. He couldn’t smoke cigarettes, drink Scotch for breakfast and burn the candle at both ends forever. But those conflicts also stimulated him. The Sibelius set also includes a performance with the Boston Symphony of the “4 Sea Interludes” from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes.” This is taken from Bernstein’s last concert, in summer 1990, three months before he died.

The interludes are “Dawn,” “Sunday Morning,” “Moonlight” and “Storm.” “Dawn” is translucent, a cherishing of every photon of light, a celebration of day, of one more day. “Sunday Morning” is so wonderful you never want it to stop, as a dying Bernstein never wanted it to stop. “Moonlight” breaks your heart. The “Storm” is Lenny’s farewell, a wrenching of the heavens, an unwillingness to give up the fight.

“Is this all there is?” Bernstein is said to have asked moments before he died. Nothing was ever enough for Bernstein. Every answer implied a new, more troubling question.

We need to remember that when we ask the ultimate question: “Who is Bernstein?” There is no answer, just a quest that can take you as deep as you are willing to go.