I”VE MADE A FEW QUICK CHANGES HERE AS A ROUGH UPDATE. Nobody with any sense of history could have taken Leonard Bernstein’s retirement announcement of last Tuesday at face value. He had, after all, made the announcement before: casting off one facet of his multifaceted talent in
order to devote more time to another. Sure, anyone who had seen him close up
in the past few years — picked out his small, stooped figure, that is, in
the middle of a dense cloud of cigarette smoke — knew that he had to be in
poor health these days; anyone who has seen him at any distance knew the
energy he poured into his conducting. IKt still seemed, lasty Tuesday, as if the time for obituary writing was a long way off. It wasn’t.
He was never the retiring type. In 1969
he “retired” as music director of the New York Philharmonic, which he had led for the past dozen years. A year or so later, back on the on that orchestra’s podium as guest conductor, he turned to the audience in one of his frequent folksy speeches, and all but asked for his old job back. His big compositional projects that he had left the orchestra to pursue — an opera based on Thornton Wilder’s “Skin of Our Teeth” and another on a play by Bert Brecht — had fizzled. So, in fact, did most of his p[rojects after the early sensational success of “West Side Story.” A string of failures had to have left him embittered, and he desperately struggled to regain his own past glory. “This is my orchestra,” he told the audience that night, “and, somehow, I’m going to come back.”
But Bernstein had a way of making any orchestra his own: the Boston Symphony,
which was virtually his practice band in the early years under Serge
Koussevitzky’s watchful tutelage, at Boston’s Symphony Hall and, most of all,
at Tanglewood; later the New York Philharmonic, the Israel, the Vienna. Who
else, besides this writer, cherishes vivid memories of this arrogant young
genius striding the Tanglewood grounds in, say, 1946, flamboyant in his red
turtleneck and sandals in a time when wearing such apparel constituted a
statement of rebellion, especially in the poresence of the aloof, sartorially
impeccable Koussevitzky. ?[ E/P]
Who else remembers the music he made in those early days: the Mahler Second
with the Boston Symphony when there were not yet the present 20 available
recordings, when the work ranked as an exotic item? Or Britten’s “Peter
Grimes,” whose American premiere he led that summer with mostly student
forces and with the composer at hand, beaming approval?
Bernstein had already, by the time of those early Tanglewood performances,
become the most important conductor of his generation; that famous sudden
debut with the New York Philharmonic, at a nationwide broadcast concert, had
occurred three years earlier — on November 14, 1943. That concert — which
you can still hear, on an LP of the radio broadcast issued by the New York
Philharmonic and available for a donation to the orchestra — wasn’t just
your basic Hollywood yarn of the understudy triumphantly taking over from the
star. It stood, far more, for the explosive enabling force that made it
possible for a young man, an American trained in his own land, and even
bearing the burden of a generic Jewish name (which Koussevitzky, in a widely-
circulated anecdote, had once urged him to change) to earn credibility on a
symphonic podium.
And so it wasn’t just the success of that last-minute substitution (for the
ailing Bruno Walter) that turned the 25-year-old Bernstein into the pivotal
figure in the annals of American musical performance. More, it was the fact
that it all happened in the glare of national publicity, in the depths of
wartime gloom when the country desperately needed this kind of good
And this made the Bernstein accession even more crucial: his approachability.
When he started becoming a familiar podium on American podiums, he charmed
the daylights (and the donations) out of his audiences by turning around and
chatting with them about the music. The statesman-conductors of his time —
Koussevitzky, Toscanini, Walter — walked through the world as serene,
unapproachable demigods who received their messages direct from Beethoven and
Tchaikovsky, never from the common herd. Not Bernstein. “Call me Lenny,” he
said on our first meeting. Try to imagine Toscanini’s “call me Artie.”
Bernstein, who drove fast cars and showed up in nightclubs and delivered
friendly chats to his audiences — and who, when the medium was ready for
him, betook his knowledge and his pizzazz to the television studios —
signaled a new breed of conductor. He was the enabling force behind any new
podium master who dared to dream of achieving fame before the customary
debutant’s age of 50 and beyond. Michael Tilson Thomas, Simon Rattle, Esa-
Pekka Salonen, Zubin Mehta? They’re all here because Lenny got here
None of this would matter much except for one thing: Bernstein was as good as
his early hypesters said he was, perhaps more. He had that mix of talents
that few of his predecessors — Leopold Stokowski maybe but who else? —
possessed: phenomenal talent as a conductor matched by his abilities to sell
his art. He drew the casual concertgoer by his talks, and by his podium
acrobatics that would have driven any ballet dancer to despair. But behind
all this was the mind of an extraordinary creative musician, a spellbinding
evangelist fiercely dedicated to the music he believed in.
Plenty of conductors before his time, for example, had argued the case for
Mahler, but it took Bernstein to turn that composer’s tortured flamboyance
into show-biz. He did this (for Mahler, for Ives, for a certain, highly
selective segment of the contemporary repertory) not merely by playing lots
of their music, but by organizing Mahler Cycles, Ives Cycles, New-Music
Festivals: neat, sexy packages that looked good in newspaper publicity. Some
conductors are skilled at playing the house; Bernstein played the world.
He made himself at home in a large part of that world. London’s critics
looked upon him initially with the jaundiced eye they reserve for all
colonials. (Get hold of some copies of The Gramophone in the 1950s. if you’re
looking for textbook illustrations of chauvinism.) Later the Brits came to
shower him with the sort of praise they usually reserve for their own queen.
He has conquered Vienna, which seems implausible, since his own way of
conducting some of the Viennese classics (the feverish Brahms, the sluggish
“Rosenkavalier” and the distorted “Fidelio”) goes somewhat against that
city’s tradition. Has the Austrian reverence for Bernstein become part of its
expiation as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler? “Na ja.” say the wily Viennese
when asked — the equivalent of a shrug and a knowing wink.
But the art of Bernstein needs no such rationalization. There are those, this
writer among them, who prefer other ways of conducting much of Bernstein’s
classic repertory. There are also those who deplore the fact that, as a
ground-breaking, dazzling product of a young musical society, he didn’t use
more of his skills to perform, or at least to plead the case, for other young
composers of progressive tendencies. He played the contemporary establishment
(Copland, Schuman and, of course, himself) brilliantly; other, more
adventurous souls, however, could have used his help.
The records endure, however, to attest Bernstein’s enormous breadth of
musical interest. Curiously, however, they don’t capture as much of the
personal magnetism of Bernstein’s live performances as you’d think. That bond
that he forged between everyone in that hall, and that dynamic bundle of
himself on the podium, is a quality that no recording microphone has learned
to capture.
You had to have been there.

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