Alex Ross on the Bernstein centennial

Your 'hot spot' for all classical music subjects. Non-classical music subjects are to be posted in the Corner Pub.

Moderators: Lance, Corlyss_D

Post Reply
John F
Posts: 19927
Joined: Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:41 am
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Alex Ross on the Bernstein centennial

Post by John F » Tue Sep 11, 2018 9:59 am

When Leonard Bernstein made his sensational conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, Toscanini was still alive, his concerts were broadcast on NBC network radio and TV, and the American man and women on the street knew who he was. Those times are gone, probably forever, as Alex Ross says in this typically perceptive New Yorker piece.

Leonard Bernstein and the Perils of Hero Worship

He was a volcanic talent—but the future of classical music cannot consist in waiting for another telegenic superstar.

By Alex Ross

Worldwide celebrations of the hundredth birthday of Leonard Bernstein, which fell on August 25th, have touted the man as a kind of musical superhero, who conquered every medium he touched: conducting, composing, Broadway shows, education, television, the intricate game of American celebrity. In classical music, he is venerated, almost desperately, as the Great Communicator, who thrust the symphonic repertory into the national conversation. After the Kennedys were assassinated, Bernstein offered Mahler as a memorial; when the Berlin Wall fell, he led a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. At a time when classical music was retreating to the edges of the cultural landscape, Bernstein appeared to reverse the process almost single-handedly, through force of will.

His charisma was indeed potent, but as Bernstein recedes into history he seems more a product of his time than an agent of transformation. He came of age in the New Deal era, when the federal government sank hundreds of millions of dollars into the arts. He benefitted from the cultural politics of the Cold War, even as he suffered under McCarthyism. He launched music-appreciation projects on television at a time when network executives considered Stravinsky’s serialist score “The Flood,” with choreography by Balanchine, suitable for a mass public. The aspirational America of the mid-twentieth century was looking for a Bernstein—a native genius who could knock off Broadway tunes as fluently as he conducted Brahms—and one was duly found. There will not be another, not because talent is lacking but because the culture that fostered him is gone.

The centenary year has yielded not only hagiography but also candid biographical accounting. Jamie Bernstein, one of Bernstein’s three children, has written a riveting, disconcerting memoir, “Famous Father Girl,” which gives an unsparing picture of the downward spiral of her father’s later years, when he was “prone to throwing lit cigarettes at us across the dinner table or calling people ‘fuckface.’ ” Charlie Harmon, who served as Bernstein’s assistant in the nineteen-eighties, is even more explicit, in “On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein,” documenting the maestro’s habit of patting his assistants’ crotches. Yet neither book is a denunciation of its subject: a troubled adoration persists, along with a sympathy for Bernstein’s inner torments.

How posterity will judge this volcano of a man remains to be seen. His career offers a lesson in the perils of hero worship: the future of classical music cannot consist in waiting for another telegenic superstar. The fact that major works still emerged from Bernstein’s later years—“Mass,” “Songfest,” “A Quiet Place”—is a tribute to his residual creative fire. Harmon, in his book, describes hearing a “timid knock” on his door in the middle of the night. Bernstein wanted to try out a newly composed passage from “A Quiet Place.” When Harmon asked a couple of skeptical questions, Bernstein answered them patiently and persuasively. For Harmon, that hour of musical exchange, shy and serious, justified the chaos that surrounded it. Even so, he fled after four years.

Bernstein’s more or less official birthday party took place at the Tanglewood festival, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. This was fitting, since he grew up in and around Boston, and effectively began his conducting career at Tanglewood, in 1940, when he took up studying with Serge Koussevitzky. That career ended in the same place, fifty years later, on August 19, 1990, when Bernstein led Beethoven’s Seventh, faltering briefly in the middle. He died in New York two months later, his body ravaged by alcohol, amphetamines, and cigarettes.

Tanglewood’s centennial concert involved five conductors—Michael Tilson Thomas, Christoph Eschenbach, Keith Lockhart, John Williams, and Andris Nelsons, the current music director of the Boston Symphony—together with Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, Thomas Hampson, Susan Graham, and, for choreographed excerpts from “West Side Story,” a gang of Broadway singers. Audra McDonald served as host and sang “Somewhere” as an encore. About fifteen thousand people were in attendance, with a huge crowd filling the lawn outside the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

But something, or someone, was missing. For the most part, the performances fell short of the raw exuberance that Bernstein customarily elicited. Only when Tilson Thomas was on the podium did the orchestra fully come alive: the prologue to “West Side Story” had an exacting rhythmic sizzle, and the finale of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” which was performed in tribute to Bernstein’s musical father figure, glowed in the warm summer air. There were a few veiled references to current political troubles, but no one uttered the name Trump—as Bernstein surely would have done, perhaps with obscenities attached. A veteran concertgoer sitting next to me had attended Bernstein’s seventieth-birthday celebration at Tanglewood, in 1988. She recalled that he stood up from his box in the audience and hollered things at the stage. This tribute, by contrast, was a respectful pageant in honor of a legend from another time.

Two nights earlier, Tanglewood had presented a staged production of “Candide,” in Seiji Ozawa Hall. This was a somewhat dispiriting affair, with a middling cast and a genial but indistinct performance by the Knights, under the direction of Eric Jacobsen. Admittedly, “Candide” has never been my favorite item in the Lenny catalogue: its pert tunes, sassy dissonances, and off-kilter rhythms come from a bag of tricks that Bernstein used too often. Also, its ethnic stereotyping and its rape jokes give pause. (The portrayal of Puerto Ricans in “West Side Story” has similarly complicated that work’s latter-day reception.) I would rather have heard “Mass,” the avant-garde gospel oratorio that Bernstein wrote for the opening of the Kennedy Center, in 1971. The hippie affectations of “Mass” drive many people up the wall, but it stands as Bernstein’s wildest, bravest creation, its anarchic shouts of “Dona nobis pacem” giving voice to the composer’s radical politics.

The highlight of the centennial weekend was, instead, a performance of Mahler—the composer whom Bernstein moved to the center of the repertory. Nelsons presided over the Third Symphony, that vast compendium of Alpine tone poetry, roughshod folk song, clashing village bands, boys’ choruses, Nietzsche, and post-Wagnerian ecstasy. In the first movement, Nelsons and his orchestra missed the raucous energy that Bernstein unleashed in his two recordings with the New York Philharmonic. After that, though, the interpretation achieved exceptional coherence: never in my experience have the colliding moods of the later movements felt more of a piece. The sustained intensity of the Bostonians’ playing honored Bernstein’s legacy.

The anniversary year has also brought a flurry of recordings, together with inevitable repackagings of Bernstein’s huge catalogue for the Sony and DG labels. A new account of “Mass,” with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, fails to match the blazing conviction that Marin Alsop achieved on a 2009 recording. A disk of Bernstein’s three symphonies, with Antonio Pappano conducting the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, lacks urgency. But Kent Nagano’s rendition of “A Quiet Place,” in a nimble chamber-orchestra version by Garth Edwin Sutherland, is the best argument yet for Bernstein’s final stage work. I gave particular attention to the prelude to Act III, the passage that Harmon describes in his book. Here the score withdraws into itself, exposing the ache behind the limpid melodies that Bernstein spun so effortlessly. It is the music of unquiet nights, in which music itself is the only consolation.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018 ... ro-worship
John Francis

barney
Posts: 2954
Joined: Fri Aug 01, 2008 11:12 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia

Re: Alex Ross on the Bernstein centennial

Post by barney » Wed Sep 12, 2018 1:52 am

Thanks John
This is probably the best piece I've read so far on Bernstein's centenary.
Fair-minded and informative.

maestrob
Posts: 5649
Joined: Tue Sep 16, 2008 11:30 am

Re: Alex Ross on the Bernstein centennial

Post by maestrob » Wed Sep 12, 2018 11:16 am

Yes, John, thank-you. Bernstein was a complicated Renaissance man, with all his contradictions, he left us quite a legacy. There could not be such a musical figure today, as society has changed, and I feel grateful to have lived during his ascendancy. His passion for music and politics simply cannot be duplicated today.

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 37 guests