Lenny's Legacy: An Appreciation of Bernstein on His 98th Birthday

Thursday, August 25, 2016 - 11:50 AM

Leonard Bernstein Leonard Bernstein (Editta Sherman)

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.

Although Lenny was best-known for his orchestral performances, he was no stranger to opera. In 1946, he conducted the American premiere of Peter Grimes at Tanglewood. In 1953, he was the first American to conduct at La Scala when he led Maria Callas in legendary performances of Cherubini’s Medea. At the Met he led famous new productions of Falstaff (1964), Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci (1970) and Carmen (1972). Among his most notable European performances were Fidelio (1970) for the bicentennial of Beethoven’s birth and Tristan und Isolde. His own operatic compositions, including Trouble in Tahiti and A Quiet Place, have not acquired a place in the standard repertoire.

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.


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Comments [16]

Fred Plotkin from New York

To Bob from Barstow: What you raise about Tom Wolfe's depiction of "Radical Chic" and the so-called party for the Black Panthers is discussed and somewhat debunked in the current play, Maestro, starring Hershey Felder. According to the play, Lenny was not present at the party until almost the end of it and his wife Felicia was not "complicit" with the Panthers in the way Tom Wolfe describes. As none of us were there (including, I gather, Tom Wolfe), it is hard to really know the facts.

Sep. 22 2016 09:27 PM
Bob from Barstow from Barstow, Ca.

Sorry, but for all his talents as a conductor and composer, the indelible memory of Leonard Bernstein's liberalism is the devastating portrayal of his fawning soiree for the Black Panthers by Tom Wolfe in "Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flack Catchers". Rather disingenuous not to mention it.

Sep. 08 2016 02:05 PM
Paul Capon from Thunder Bay, ON

Hi Fred: Was it Stravinsky who said Lenard Bernstein was like the shopping mall - you could get everything you need - conductor, composer, pianist, educator, writer, personality...

Aug. 30 2016 02:01 AM
Loge from New York

Fred: We were at that final Bernstein concert at Tanglewood. It was the slowest Beethoven's Seventh ever. The second movement, which was also the background for the King's Speech, lasted more than seven minutes. usually it lasts for about 4. Every time I hear it played that fast, I want to reach out and tell the conductor to slow down. During the third movement he leaned back against the railing and did not conduct. We could not see him coughing from our seats in the Shed, but the Boston Symphony stayed with him and did not speed up that movement. He recovered for the final movement. Many of us knew that we would never see him conduct again. For those of us who were there it was a beautiful finale.

Aug. 29 2016 05:48 PM
Nick from Tampa

I always admired Bernstein, but I wish he would have done more composing and less conducting. Great conductors come and go, but their compositions stay around forever. Who can remember great conductors of the 17th, 18th and 19th century? If they also composed, their legacy lives on.

Aug. 29 2016 02:34 PM
Judy from Las Vegas

I was one of the very fortunate children who attended his young people's concerts. I think they were at Hunter College. still picture him as a tall young man with dark hair. I am still very active in music as a member of the Las Vegas Master Singers. Anyone out there remember the Interracial Fellowship Chorus from the 1950s and 1960s in New York. I sang with them, too. The conductor was Harold Aks.

Aug. 29 2016 01:47 PM


Aug. 29 2016 10:38 AM

@Les (and others), one of my favorite Bernstein's "lesser-knowns" is Chichester Psalms. I never had a chance to meet Mr. Bernstein but I sang the countertenor solo in Chichester on several occasions.


Aug. 29 2016 10:14 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

@Les, there are and were other tenors besides Pavarotti, Jussi Bjoerling, DeStefano, Konya. Bjoerling owned Nessun Dorma. Yes, NBC Opera gone and that was an abomination, NBC Symphony. The Sarnoffs got Toscanini out of retirement for that.
Forgive me, but I could go on and on.

Aug. 27 2016 12:09 PM

Ah, "Lenny" Bernstein. He's dead and yet produces much emotion, pro and con. I am most definitely in the 'pro' category. I will never forget hearing him and the NY Philharmonic perform the Shostakovich 5th and (in a different program,) Mahler 1st in the late 1970s. Both performances were so terrific and so memorable that to this day, I use them as measures against which all succeeding performances are judged. In the final movement of both works-especially the Mahler-I believed the roof of Avery Fisher Hall was going to fly off the walls and be launched into space but not because of how loudly they played, but because of the build-up and final release of tension he and the orchestra created. For him, simply playing the notes was never enough. He had to 'take you by the hand' and show you what was happening in the music. Alas, there are too few conductors such as that around anymore. More's the pity!

Aug. 26 2016 05:52 PM
marilyn from Cambria Heights, NY

Dear Les from Miami

As an American citizen, I have the duty to defend your right to say whatever you wish although I totally disagree with you and I hope that you will grant me the same privilege. I love "West Side Story." I went to high school in Manhattan and, as an adult, I saw those kids in that play as being very similar to my classmates. Also years after the incident, my mother revealed to me that she was in the school on PTA business when a boy was quitting school in order to join the Navy because he had reached the age when he could legally do so. She asked him how much longer he had to go in order to graduate. He told her one more year. She tried to convince him that it was only one year and he should stay. He told her that if he didn't leave New York then, he would have to join a gang. Yes, there were street gangs in those days although I was the sort of kid who went to school, did my classwork, and went home with the hope of getting a good job after graduation. "West Side Story" is, theoretically, supposed to "Romeo and Juliet" in modern dress. "West Side Story" taught me to see "Romeo and Juliet" as a story about a bunch of wealthy Italian young noblemen who are nothing but a bunch of street-corner-punks!

Aug. 26 2016 04:37 PM
Jeannie from alabama

In 1964 The maestro opened his home in Westport for anyone who bought a ticket (probably $10.00 each and for a cause, I forget which one) to hear Billy Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie play on his back patio. I sat in front of the musicians on a blanket on the lawn;that afternoon I was 16 and living in a world where anyone could see and hear these greats up close. One of my happiest days in life...

Aug. 26 2016 01:12 PM
Pamela Thomas from NYC

Love the article. Always loved Bernstein. I met him at Carnegie Hall at the Tribute to him - I think in the early '80s. After he learned I was a singer and he asked me where I was singing. I said right now I was "only" in the chorus of New York City Opera. Oh my - he told me don't ever say "only"! You are performing - there is no "only". Never forgot that!

Aug. 26 2016 09:14 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

@ Les:I remember Voice of Firestone, NBC Opera.etc. Every Christmas season, NBC would present Amahl and the Night Visitors, etc. When NBC was not owned by the Sarnoffs, it became nothing more than garbage, such as Real Housewives, etc. and MSNBC with its leftie coverage. I only watch CNBC for financial coverage and the Formula 1 races.
I learned quite a bit about classical music from Young Peoples Concerts.
Years ago Trio Network rebroadcast these. Trio is now Ovation. Nothing special about them.

Aug. 26 2016 08:54 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I've long thought that Mr. Bernstein was most convincing as a conductor in the Russians and "moderns" ( by that I mean those born in the 20th Century as well as Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg). His championing of Mahler I think is an overstatement, his love and sympathy for his compositions notwithstanding. Mahler was always throughout others' careers championed, even when Bernstein was a youth, namely by Bruno Walter, Dimitri Mitropoulos,Jascha Hornstein and young Willem Mengelberg. But Bernstein had the singular advantage of living in the age of television and video tape and the power and influence of Columbia Records and CBS behind him; and that makes it look like he was Mahler's only apostle, much like Pavarotti was (and still is through recordings) THE tenor as if none worth remembering existed before him. This is nonsense. (Parenthetically, I only wish there would be such programming like the above by CBS that also included programs like "The Seven Lively Arts" and "Camera Three" on Sundays, to say nothing about NBC's Opera Theatre, the NBC Symphony (whose disbandment was an abomination), as well as "The Voice of Firestone" from the Center Theatre and the "Bell Telephone Hour" from studio 6B.) But I digress. I think Mr. Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts" and Norton Lectures at Harvard ("The Unanswered Question") are nonpareil and are at the top of the list of his lasting achievements. I hope, as his centennial nears, his lesser-known compositions will be much more played and that "West Side Story", which I loathe, will be given a moratorium. Of the lesser-exposed compositions, I'm thinking specifically of the "Clarinet Sonata", "Seven Anniversaries", "Jeremiah Symphony", "Age of Anxiety", "Fancy Free" and my all-time lesser-known favorite, "Facsimile", written for Jerome Robbins.

Aug. 26 2016 08:35 AM
VESPASIAN from Suffolk

This adoration of a mediocre conductor is a bit much. His Sunday afternoon program about different types of classical music were very fine indeed. That's about all.
He was so full of himself.

Aug. 26 2016 06:58 AM

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