"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.
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.