Rethinking Lenny

Photo: Getty Images

It’s time to honor Lenny again. Roll out the reminiscences and dust off the myth of Leonard Bernstein, the musician who could leap from low-down to lofty in a single bound. He would have turned 90 this year if he had smoked less and slept more, or maybe if he had just done less. In the 72 years he did live, he resurrected Mahler, fought for American music, and stared down all those cranky Europeans who doubted that a Jewish boy from Boston could preach the gospel of Brahms. He ensured that even his faults acquired Olympian dimensions. Distracted by Too Many Talents, worn down by Excessive Generosity, given to Emotional Extremes, misled by Perpetual Naïveté, and kept in thrall to Burning Ambition, Bernstein made performance art of his own flaws.

He’s still at it. Even deceased, he looms too large for one institution to celebrate, so Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic, City Center, and others have teamed up for an autumn-long festival encompassing an Encores! presentation of On the Town and performances of most of his major concert works (but not, alas, all of his strange opera A Quiet Place).

Is it possible that after decades of adulation, Bernstein could still be underappreciated? Perhaps all that love has done him a disservice. The Establishment is so thickly populated by Bernstein’s apprentices that they make it difficult to hear his music for what it is. I don’t mean his adrenalized interpretations of other people’s scores, delivered in storm-tossed style, or the evergreen Broadway shows; those remain vivid and ever present. I mean, rather, his application essays to the pantheon of Western genius. Those big concert-hall scores with the Judeo-Christian titles—Jeremiah, Kaddish, Mass, Chichester Psalms—are still touched by the pall of disappointment that shrouded his career as a composer. His critics accused him of committing derivative mush; his champions lobbed back a fusillade of hyperbole. Bernstein’s symphonic works are, like their maker, grandly imperfect. They go on too long, they wail, they trudge, they grow murky, and they cry out for an editor who could tell Bernstein no. But they also do something miraculous: They grow fresher with age. Maybe now that he’s been gone for a while, we can sit down and listen.

Not so fast. The opening-night party at Carnegie Hall, which chief Bernstein apostle Michael Tilson Thomas emceed with his usual charm, practically embalmed the legend in snappy respect. The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story trotted neatly along, tossing confetti of brass. Yo-Yo Ma showed up for an intense “Meditation No. 1” from Mass, Dawn Upshaw hop-skipped jauntily through “What a Movie” from Trouble in Tahiti, and a pleasant time was had by all. In an era dominated by a lugubrious avant-garde, Bernstein was a wizard of joy. But that suite of polite performances made me want to run home and listen to the final two minutes of Fiesta, a sensational CD of Latin music detonated by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The disc ends with the West Side Story “Mambo,” which erupted from my speakers in a raucous tumble of rhythms. The performance taps a subversive wildness that runs through even the most beloved numbers. Dudamel was 9 when Bernstein died.

That next generation of musicians will have to rescue the old man from reverence. Bernstein’s demons are not theirs; young performers take for granted that the popular cohabits with the rarefied. They can bring out his potent lyricism and maybe even discover that the pieces are stronger than he thought. A couple of nights later, the maestro’s old band, the New York Philharmonic, spotlighted another gifted youth for whom Bernstein is a figure of the deep past. With Lorin Maazel conducting Symphony No. 2 from 1949 as if it were subtitled “Complacency Forever” instead of “The Age of Anxiety,” the 22-year-old pianist Joyce Yang bounded through the solo. It’s a bold and beguiling work that marries pop idioms to an assortment of modern gestures: broad romantic melodies, astringent harmonies, jaunty rhythms, and bouquets of swinging brass, all combined without irony or look-I’m-cool affectation but with an old-fashioned, sincere conviction in a symphony’s philosophical powers. Perhaps too sincere. The piece purports to be a tour of middle-class malaise, based on a long poem by W. H. Auden. “The Prologue”—a weave of quiet clarinets—“finds four lonely characters, a girl and three men, in a Third Avenue bar, all of them insecure and trying … to detach themselves from their conflicts,” Bernstein explained. Yang wisely soft-pedaled the chic alienation. While those four boozy New Yorkers staggered through their doubts, she played the piece with such stylish athletic fervor as to defy the composer’s claim that the piece is “no ‘concerto,’ in the virtuosic sense.” Sure it is, and more power to it.

Bernstein glided through the sixties with such casual worldliness that it’s easy to forget that he was also a religious composer. The end of Rosh Hashanah brought a pairing of Bernstein’s and Beethoven’s great humanist pleas—Chichester Psalms and the Ninth Symphony—performed in the dazzling nave of St. Ignatius Loyola for the series “Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.” Bernstein would have been pleased at the sympathies between Beethoven’s rock-splitting radicalism and the hard-won simplicity of his own score, between the hortatory German of the “Ode to Joy” and the exuberant Hebrew Psalms. The lusty opening movement got softened a bit by the church’s reverberations, but the payoff was a final timpani blow that an archangel might have struck. Conductor Kent Tritle wrapped the rest of the Psalms in a golden shroud of sound, setting off the silvery soprano of 11-year-old Andres Felipe Aristizabal—yet another fine talent untouched by Lenny’s hands-on mystique.

Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds
Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic.
Through December 13.

Rethinking Lenny