FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Lenny's Legacy: An Appreciation of Bernstein on His 98th Birthday
Thursday, August 25, 2016 - 11:50 AM
A couple of weeks ago I was in Massachusetts, visiting a family friend in her 90s who resides in an independent living facility in Newton just west of Boston. My friend is a New Yorker, but most of her neighbors are locals. More than a few of them went to school with Leonard Bernstein at the prestigious Boston Latin School (from which he graduated in 1935) or Harvard (B.A., cum laude, 1939). Invariably these nonagenarian Bostonians referred to him as Lenny. They had vibrant and loving stories to tell of his early years when his brash brilliance was already fully evident.
Bernstein was born on Aug. 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Mass. Had he lived, today would have been his 98th birthday. He died in New York on Oct. 14, 1990 and was interred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. He was buried with a copy of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and a baton made for him by Metropolitan Opera musician Richard Horowitz. The secret ingredient in the Bernstein batons was Champagne corks.
Many people think of Lenny as the quintessential New Yorker through musicals such as On the Town and West Side Story, his long association with the New York Philharmonic and the way he was a titan in the city’s cultural, social and political life. And yet he was a Bostonian by birth, and if his swagger was congenial to New York, his passion for intellectual endeavors and old school liberalism marked him out as a native of the city sometimes called the Athens of America.
The Bostonians I met asked if I knew Lenny. Indeed I did. Everyone with any connection to music in New York and elsewhere encountered Bernstein. He was a gregarious and tireless figure who effortlessly became the center of attention in any room. Yet he also had boundless curiosity and a love of sharing knowledge, especially with kids.
I was part of a group of small children whose parents worked at Lincoln Center. We often gathered in Philharmonic Hall (now called David Geffen Hall), which opened in 1962 as the first building at the arts complex. We used to play in the lobby in the early afternoon until one day the maestro spotted us and decreed that, if we behaved, we should be allowed to sit in the auditorium during rehearsals.
None of us had seen the film version of Bernstein’s West Side Story, which had opened the year before and was considered too grown-up for us. It was not until years later, when we saw the movie, that we learned that many scenes, including this one, were filmed in the cement playgrounds with chain link fences that were taken down so Lincoln Center — as much an urban renewal project as an arts institution — could be built. On Sept. 13, 14 and 15, the philharmonic will play Bernstein’s entire score to accompany a screening of the film at Geffen Hall.
We kids would sit in the front rows of the auditorium, somewhere behind the conductor’s left shoulder so that Lenny (as we were instructed to call him), would turn and make an aside or comment while he used the great musicians of the philharmonic as an instructional tool for our benefit.
Years later he told me that he enjoyed having our merry band there because we were, in effect, a focus group as he prepared his legendary Young People’s Concerts, which were must-see TV in the 1960s. How remarkable that such a program could be featured on network television, including three years on Saturday in prime time on CBS. All told, Lenny did 53 such concerts between 1958 and 1971 though not all were broadcast. This one is typical of Lenny’s erudition, love of teaching and communication skills that could captivate and enthuse listeners young and old without ever sounding condescending.
He could teach people at all ages and levels of achievement. Notice how he deploys his gifts in one of the six famous Norton lectures he gave at Harvard during a year-long residency in 1973. The level of scholarship here is much more imposing than at a Young People’s Concert, but the communication skills are the same. Many of Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic lectures and all of the ones at Harvard can be found on YouTube and are as fresh and relevant today as they were when first delivered.
I have often heard it said that, as talented as Bernstein was as a conductor and composer, his real gifts were as an educator. I think that very few people are qualified to make such an assessment. I am convinced, though, that the Bernstein legacy we still draw from was possible because he lived in a time when his talents could be nurtured and given suitable platforms.
He lived in a time when artists continuously engaged in political activities. Bernstein was famously liberal and supported causes such as opposition to the Vietnam War and promotion of the civil rights movement. He knew presidents as well as dissidents and used music — by other composers as well as his own — to advance his ideals. His Candide (1956) was anti-war and anti-totalitarian at a time when McCarthyism persecuted people in the arts who dared to express leftist sentiments. The original libretto was by Lillian Hellman, who was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Bernstein benefitted from his association with the New York Philharmonic, including being its music director from 1958 to 1969, an era when recording companies such as Columbia had deals with major conductors and orchestras that enabled them to record almost all the masterpieces of the classical repertoire. In the case of some composers, such as Sibelius, Nielsen and, above all, Mahler, Bernstein's recordings were often the first complete documents of their works. In 1960, the philharmonic held a Mahler festival in celebration of the composer’s birth. Before Bernstein, Mahler was on the margins of the repertory, but Lenny felt such a powerful connection to him as a conductor, composer and visionary that he almost single-handedly made Mahler the revered composer he is today.
Bernstein lived in a time when he and other conductors such as Georg Solti and Herbert van Karajan had recording companies that not only made records but also documentary films as supporting material. I hope you can take two and a half hours away from the cares of the world to watch Lenny work with members of the Vienna Philharmonic and mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Despite all of the video streaming and other technologies we have now, there is no Lenny around to connect us to music as he so magnificently did.
From watching this film, you will have seen that Lenny was a heavy smoker. In that way, too, he was a man of his time, and this addiction no doubt shortened his life. I know singers who have told me that he would be in a cramped recording booth conducting them with his right hand and smoking with his left. He lived in a time when it was possible to smoke in restaurants, and he always did. I recall an occasion in which he stood in the old Café des Artistes on West 67th Street, expostulating to all who would listen how the restaurant's famous wall paintings by Howard Chandler Christy of almost nude blond men and women were depictions of Rhinemaidens and Siegfried from Wagner’s Ring. The restaurant's owner, George Lang, looked on anxiously as cigarette ashes went flying everywhere, threatening to damage the murals.
In fact, only a small cluster of his orchestral works are played regularly around the world, and it is always an occasion when they appear. This is certain to change as his centennial approaches. I know of several arts institutions that will soon announce special Bernstein celebrations.
One of the works that will surely come back is his Mass (1971), commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Although he was Jewish, this work was adapted from the traditional Roman Catholic mass. Word got out that it had a political component (opposing the Vietnam War), and Richard Nixon, then president, decided to skip the inauguration of the Kennedy Center. I hope that our next president, whoever that might be, will attend Bernstein centennial celebrations in Washington and elsewhere.
I encourage anyone in New York between Aug. 31 and Oct. 16. to attend Maestro, a one-man show starring the virtuosic Hershey Felder as Bernstein. I imagine he will be very much in demand as the centennial approaches.
Lenny's last performance, on Aug. 19, 1990, brought him home to Massachusetts, where he conducted the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. He had a coughing fit during the third movement and had to be helped from the podium at the end. A sad valedictory to a glorious life as America’s Maestro.