Photo: AP Wide World Photos

Leonard Bernstein died fourteen years ago, and it’s still hard to believe that he’s not around. More than merely a composer, he was a magnetic force, a catalyst for debate, a proselytizer for an art form generally treated with genteel high-mindedness: He made music exciting, even for those who were chronically allergic to his methods and manner. If Bernstein the composer was greatly gifted, Bernstein the communicator was a genius. Everyone talks about how to draw a new audience toclassical music, but Bernstein actually did it, with flair and a dash of showbiz. Today, as institutions like the Philharmonic struggle with declining audiences and begin to question their very reasons for being, they need him more than ever.

A compulsive extrovert, Bernstein craved attention, but he also pretty much deserved it—even if he always felt that his share was never enough. “Our problem, Ned,” he once mused to fellow composer Ned Rorem, “is that we want everyone to love us; the trouble is, you don’t meet everyone.” I was interviewing him one day when, apropos of nothing at all, he suddenly began to sing, in a hoarse croak, the “Flower Song” from Carmen—the only aria in all of opera, he said, that didn’t have a single repeating phrase. It was a wonderful insight, and a mesmerizing performance as well: a moment that crystallized his spontaneous charm as a teacher.

But the flip side of this generosity was a creative vulnerability. Bernstein was wounded by bad notices for his 1971 Mass—a montage of classical, jazz, folk, blues, and rock that challenged religious ritual—and stung by criticisms that felt personal. (The late Harold Schonberg, a longtime nemesis, once derided Bernstein’s florid podium style: “Bernstein rose vertically, à la Nijinsky, and hovered there a good fifteen seconds by the clock.”)

“Everybody talks about how to draw a new audience to classical music, but Bernstein actually did it, with flair and a dash of showbiz.”

Perhaps, but if so, he’s remained afloat a great deal longer. This year, his presence is stronger than ever, with the WFMT Radio Network launching an eleven-hour biographical documentary; the Young People’s Concerts out on DVD; Bernstein’s salty music-appreciation book, The Joy of Music, back in print; and both Sony Classical and Deutsche Grammophon repackaging his discs. The Miller Theatre at Columbia University even opened its season with a “composer portrait,” featuring selections from each period in Bernstein’s life.

At this concert, the Gotham City Orchestra—conducted by George Steel, a former Bernstein pupil—paid the conductor’s music appropriate honor. No composition was weak, from the 1954 Serenade After Plato’s Symposium (a 30-minute violin concerto played with panache by Jennifer Koh) to three excerpts from Bernstein’s 1983 full-length opera, A Quiet Place, which, it’s hard to believe, still waits for a New York production. The lullaby from the 1963 Kaddish Symphony, gorgeously sung by Amy Burton, is perhaps the most affecting moment in that conflicted score—a battle between agonized dissonance and consoling tonality. And there was the composer’s lighter side to savor: 1949’s jazzy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and the “Three Dance Episodes” from On the Town.

But even as I enjoyed the evening, I also felt a strange self-consciousness in much of this music, beautiful as it was. When writing for the concert hall, Bernstein had a shyness, a hesitance to indulge in the sort of expressive freedom that never troubled him when he conducted or proselytized. Perhaps this was due to a life spent conducting the greats; on some level it must have been intimidating to be held up as the twentieth-century champion of Gustav Mahler, who was a composer of genius as well as a full-time conductor. As a composer, Bernstein had two masterpieces, each one of his more eclectic creations. The first was the much-loved musical West Side Story. The other was the much-derided Mass, the score that earned him such painful criticism.

I’ve yet to experience a performance of Mass, live or on disc, that even began to tap into its vitality—it’s a score impressive even when Bernstein is stumbling up against an impossible lyric (“God said sex should repulse / Unless it leads to results”). Bernstein’s own rather disheveled recording, an unfortunate early experiment in quadraphonic sound, was made under less than ideal conditions, while the clueless Deutsches Symphonie–Orchester Berlin and Berlin Radio Chorus conducted by Kent Nagano on a new release from Harmonia Mundi is too polite by half. No matter. Even imperfectly performed, Mass is the one score in which Bernstein the great composer finally met Bernstein the great communicator—in which he was finally able to transmit his native enthusiasm with stunning art.