TODAY: A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein on His Centenary
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, August 25, 2018
I grew up in a very small town in western Georgia, back when TV came in black, white, and three shades of gray, and reception was limited to two network affiliates beaming unreliable signals out of Atlanta and a local-only station coming in loud and clear from Columbus, a mere forty miles down the river. In an environment where art was viewed as stuck-up and probably subversive, and sophistication consisted of a weekday-morning talk-show called At Home with Rozelle, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic seemed like the quintessence of both.
This was TV worth fighting for, even though there was only one set for the four of us, and it was in the living room, so everybody could tromp through and grind their teeth at you while you and Lenny pondered the deep and abiding questions of life, like “What Does Music Mean?,” and “What is Classical Music?,” and “What is American Music?” You might get a pass on the latter, because Aaron Copland looked like everybody’s favorite uncle, even in 1958, and it would have seemed un-American to object to a hoedown. But when Lenny got to stuff like “Who is Gustav Mahler?”, you could count on some “responsible adult” sticking a football in your hand and announcing that it was time to turn off the idiot-box and go outside and get some fresh air and exercise.
And then I discovered Candide. Here was wit. Here was beauty. Here was energy, principle, and truthful witness, expressed with a giddy brilliance that made everything seem possible, even to a tense, messy eleven-year-old with confused, sketchily-informed artistic yearnings and no clear pathway to anywhere.
Of course, everything isn’t possible, and while I eventually got excellent musical and theatrical training, little of it panned out for me until nearly forty years later, and none of that ever came about in a straightforward way, and I am not rich and famous.
Still, Lenny was always around somewhere in the picture, and while I saw him perform live only twice—a thrilling Mahler First in Boston, in 1966, and a worrying mixed bag including a first pass at Songfest, at Philharmonic Hall, ten years later—his recordings with the Philharmonic were constant companions. It wasn’t so much the big Mahler set or the drop-dead Rite of Spring as it was the little surprises—the Ives Second, the Thompson Second, the Schumann symphonies, the Bach Magnificat, the later Haydn symphonies—that kept lighting unexpected paths. Even when he went off the rails, you felt like he really meant it, whatever it was, and because in those days he never lost touch with what seemed like some fundamental inner merriment, you knew he would balance it all out and bring it home in the end.
Even his struggles and embarrassments offered a funny kind of hope in dreadful times: the “radical chic” episode, for example, was excruciating, but few of us were at our best in 1970, and at least he tried to do the right thing, as it was given to him to see it; and while his increasingly messy private life hurt many, perhaps most of all himself, at least he didn’t turn off the spotlight and pretend to be better than he was. Leadership? Perhaps not, but at least it wasn’t hypocrisy and finger-pointing.
Later on, of course, he seemed to lose his way, and many of us felt like we were losing him, too, or at least those parts of him that had given us so much excitement and joy. The physical toll of all his bad habits was already apparent at that concert I saw in 1966, when he got so winded he nearly fell off the podium. Once he started recording, by preference, with British and European orchestras, his performances often seemed bloated, labored, and far too conscious of their exalted surroundings. He even seemed to turn against his own most original and distinctive work, insisting on fixing things, like Kaddish and Candide, that were only arguably broke, while tarting up his Broadway scores in opera-house drag, as if that made them not just great, but Great.
It’s a very American thing: you can be as brilliant as you please, but someday, somebody’s going to condescend to you and diss your work because you’re not somebody else, and your accent’s not right, and your training is deficient compared to whatever was on tap in Vienna back whenever, and unless you are very, very confident of your own value and the quality of your work, you are going to get rattled, and you are going to try much too hard to make this person approve of you, and you are almost certain to hobble yourself in the process, and to dilute your work, if you don’t wreck it altogether.
It’s also very American to put down what you have because it isn’t as big, or there isn’t as much of it, as what somebody more famous than you did one time, long ago and far away, in different circumstances.
But in the end, so what? Lenny didn’t write nine symphonies, but he wrote Jeremiah, and The Age of Anxiety, and Kaddish, all of which will speak eloquently of his time long after his detractors are dead and forgotten. He never wrote a successful full-length opera, but Trouble in Tahiti will keep nagging at us as long as materialism and unhappy families exist. He didn’t have the breadth and amplitude to become our Mozart, as many hoped he would, but then Mozart didn’t write Wonderful Town. For all Lenny’s brio, he lacked the self-assurance to do what he did and let it speak for itself, but his best work will still be there, alive and true, when all the anxious tinkering is done and the defensive rewrites fall away.
He wasn’t perfect—who is?—but he was unapologetically alive, as few public figures have the guts to be, and for a long time he made music and theatre feel like they really mattered, right or wrong, warts and all. For many, he was an inspiration, a point of comparison, and a cautionary tale rolled into one—an uncertain beacon, but a beacon nonetheless. I wish he’d been happier, and I wish he’d done better, and I wish he’d let Candide alone, but his work changed my life and made me a better person, a better performer, and a better thinker. I miss him.
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