Today marks what would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. The internet has been awash the past few days with articles dedicated to this august event. So here I am to add to the tide. One of the things that struck me this year was just how many professional musicians have been either blasé or outright dismissive of this anniversary. Why is that, I wonder?
Could it be Lenny’s sheer omnipresence in our culture? Perhaps it is the presence of just a few celebrated works which are played over and over again. Maybe it’s also due to the absence of his active conducting presence. Is it the famous familiarity that breeds the facile contempt? I’m not sure, but I do understand it to a degree, perhaps even share it. If I just think about how many times I’ve played the overture to Candide in slapdash performances over the past 25 years or so…
But there is magic there, in the lingering presence of a man whose influence and championing of various composers, old and new, has left a lasting imprint on the cultural fabric of America. He performed large swaths of Haydn symphonies when most orchestras were playing them hardly at all – recording a good selection of them with the New York Philharmonic. He performed and recorded works of his own near-contemporaries and predecessors – Copland, Blitzstein, Harris, and Ives. He almost single-handedly brought the music of Gustav Mahler back into the mainstream repertoire (a la Mendelssohn and the music of J.S. Bach), and recorded the cycle masterfully in two highly-regarded cycles with the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He wrote one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time in West Side Story. And he incubated an entire generation of young musicians (some of whom later became a new collection of American masters) with his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.
Isn’t that enough of a legacy to deserve respect? What’s tiresome about that?
I wish I had a personal Lenny story. I came close, being an alternate to the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1990, which was the occasion of his last concert. But his ghost has hung over Tanglewood ever since, and when I was a Fellow there in 1994 and 1995, his music and legacy was a constant presence in both the programming and the philosophy of the festival.
Mostly, his influence on me came through his recordings. Especially the cycles of the Brahms and Mahler symphonies. I vividly remember the video of him reaching the main theme of the last movement of Brahms’ First Symphony and just standing there, and letting the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic do its Vienna Philharmonic thing, with that luminous and rich string sound. And staying up late at night to listen to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – so strikingly slow, with every possible drop of emotion wrung from each aching note. Good stuff. I may have new preferences for my current favorite interpretations, but revisiting these recordings is like going back through the geologic record of layers of sediment, and seeing where my musical formation really began.