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CLASSICAL  January 2009

CLASSICAL January 2009

Subject:

Bernstein by Bernstein, and Others

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 2 Jan 2009 13:03:51 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (131 lines)

Leonard Bernstein, American Original: How a Modern Renaissance Man
Transformed Music and the World During His New York Philharmonic Years,
1943-1976

Burton Bernstein & Barbara B. Haws
New York: Collins. 2008.
ISBN-10: 0061537861
ISBN-13: 9780061537868

Summary for the Busy Executive: Who is Lenny? What is he20

I think we're still trying to get the measure of Leonard Bernstein's
achievement.  Bernstein attracted a mountain of uncomprehending print
during his lifetime.  In many ways, he's still too hip for the room.
Joan Peyser's biography - a compendium of factual error, lousy prose,
and downright stupid speculation - should have embarrassed her, but
probably didn't.  Tom Wolfe's brilliant Radical Chic tagged Bernstein's
political involvement as superficial (and added a new phrase to American
politics).  It also ignored Bernstein's solid commitment - both before
and after the immediate context of the article - to fostering and, more
importantly, hiring minority musicians.  It also got one important fact
wrong.  Humphrey Burton's biography, despite its good reviews, constitutes
little more than tentative first steps.  Burton was a friend of the
composer and seems to have been intimidated by the bogeyman of objectivity.
His conclusions are safe ones and come nowhere near giving Bernstein his
full due.

Objectivity doesn't enter into Burton Bernstein's writing at all: he's
the composer's brother.  But that's the genius of this book, in that it
mixes outsider opinions with personal reminiscence.  None of the outsiders
were particularly close to Bernstein, and many have achieved distinction
in their field.  Some never cared for Bernstein's music-making.  The
list of contributors consists of

* music critic Alan Rich
* historian Paul S. Boyer on Bernstein's social activism
* musicologist Carol J. Oja on Bernstein's musicals
* Tim Page on Bernstein's educational TV mission
* historian Jonathan Rosenberg on the Philharmonic's Berlin, Soviet
   Union, and Berlin tours
* culture historian Joseph Horowitz on Bernstein's programming at the
   Philharmonic
* conductor Bill McGlaughlin on Bernstein's conducting style
* James M. Keller, program annotator of the Philharmonic, on Bernstein,
   New York, and Mahler
* John Adams on Bernstein as an iconic American composer.

Interspersed with these essays, one finds Burton Bernstein's
reminiscences on related matters.  So you get an "inside-outside" point
of view throughout the work.  It also helps that you get so many viewpoints.
Right now, Bernstein is still too big and multi-faceted to be comprehended
by any one perspective.

This book appears under the imprimatur of the New York Philharmonic and
thus heavily emphasizes - over-emphasizes, really - Bernstein's years
as director.  That's its chief drawback.  I'd agree that under Bernstein's
leadership, the Philharmonic became the major-league face and voice of
American music, as Koussevitzky's Boston Symphony had been between the
wars.  Bernstein, the musical omnivore interested in just about everything
and brilliant enough to understand what was going on, gave us a valuable
snapshot of the musical energy of the country.  If you wanted to know
what was happening in classical music in America, you had to look at
what the Philharmonic was doing.  Although he didn't pioneer Mahler, he
brought that composer into mainstream symphonic programming, both in the
United States and abroad.  He did the same for Copland and Nielsen.  But
while Koussevitzky's Boston was probably the finest American orchestra
of its time, Bernstein's New York Phil lagged behind both Cleveland and
Chicago in at least sheer playing.  Part of this was due to Bernstein's
attraction to risk, to pushing up to and past the limit of credibility.
New York has improved tremendously since.  However, it has lost its
representative place among first-rank American orchestras, and I'd say
it lost it to Bernstein protege Michael Tilson Thomas's San Francisco
Symphony.

My three favorite essays in the book come from Alan Rich, Bill McGlaughlin,
and John Adams.  Rich marvelously describes what it was like to be young
and struggling in New York during the postwar period.  McGlaughlin takes
on Bernstein's controversial "corybantic" conducting.  Harold Schonberg,
chief music critic of the Times, famously lambasted what he considered
Bernstein's egomaniacal podium antics, which could cause more sensitive
souls, used to, say, the elegance of Fritz Reiner or Vladimir Horowitz,
to cringe.  However, in all my years of reading about Bernstein, nobody
ever seemed to ask a conductor.  McGlaughlin provides the insight:
Bernstein's writhings weren't meant for the audience, but for the players.
McGlaughlin actually asked for the opinions of the orchestra members,
and they seemed to have appreciated the gestures.  Bernstein's gyrations
signaled not only his intent but the sense of extraordinary occasion.
John Adams, a favorite prose writer and a favorite composer, contributes
an essay on Bernstein as an American archetype.  While I don't agree
with all his conclusions, he at least shows me how he has arrived at
them.  He beautifully captures the essence of the Bernstein mystique:

    I recall in sharp clarity an afternoon broadcast of a
    piece called "The Right of Spring," or so I thought was the
    title. It was my first dose of modern music, and I remember
    how very strange the harmonies and sonorities sounded
    coming over that tiny, crackling radio. The broadcast
    included Bernstein speaking to the audience before conducting
    the music. That was a shock, because classical music up
    to this point had been the province of mysterious, remote
    foreign-born "maestros." These were unknowable, almost
    alien, frequently tyrannical authority figures, crystallized
    in the public's mind by iconic images of Toscanini,
    Stokowski, or Fritz Reiner on record jackets and program
    books. These forbidding "maestros" certainly never would
    chat with their audience, least of all in the relaxed,
    familiar style of this young, handsome, and brainy upstart.
    It was a shock and a delight, then, to turn on the radio
    and hear the voice of an American speaking in the common
    vernacular, but with vivid images of the music of such
    daring and radical composers as Igor Stravinsky and Charles
    Ives. And then I saw on a magazine cover the face that
    went with this charming voice - Bernstein's face - and I
    thought "this guy looks more like James Dean than he looks
    like Toscanini."

The actual fabrication of the book may delight some and infuriate others.
To me, it's handsomely designed - a coffee-table volume with lots of
pictures and graphical type and photos and glamorous hoo-ha - but it
also has substance.  It's not the last word on Bernstein and doesn't
pretend to be.  The price runs 15-20 dollars on Amazon, which, for such
a quality production, amazes me.  Nevertheless, I borrowed my copy from
the Public Library.  You may want to do the same.

Steve Schwartz

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