Lenny B. at 103: A Personal Reflection on Leonard Bernstein

What can be said about the great Leonard Bernstein that hasn’t been said already? He was exuberant, obnoxious, a struggling gay man who was married to a devoted martyr of a wife with whom he had three children, a genius, a showoff, etc. What can be said that’s new is my own personal reflections and experiences with the music and works of Leonard Bernstein, whom I consider to be the greatest American composer. Yesterday, August 25, marked the 103rd anniversary of his birth, and I consider it only fitting that I pay tribute to “Lenny.”

I can’t remember exactly when it was that I encountered Bernstein’s music; it would be safe to say that it was when I first listened to and saw the musical “West Side Story” as a pre-teen, though chances are I would have seen him conducting on PBS on “Great Performances” as a child (one of the few programs my mother would actually encourage me to watch.) The haunting, lyrical melodies, the explosive Latin rhythms, the ability to go from tender to exuberant at the drop of a hat–it was also marvelous and moving, there was no other music like it.

Perhaps no piece exemplifies Leonard Bernstein better than the music to the operetta “Candide,” which I discovered in college and was just enthralled by. During my senior year, I took a class on American musical theater, and we had to choose a work that interested us and write a paper on it. Given that I was a classical musician, I was especially fascinated by this crossover work that was certainly much more complex and lush than a musical yet had catchy enough melodies that would linger in your head! I spent a lot of time listening to the album, reflecting on the profundity of the words, and developed a strong desire to read the play (which, shamefully, I still have not done) and see the work in person. Only many years later did I get to see “Candide” live in a wonderful university production, though I did see the televised production with Kristin Chenoweth.

When I moved to New York, it was inevitable that I would get to know more about the life and work of “Lenny,” as it was his city. During my first round of graduate school in my master’s program at Columbia University’s Teachers College, I took a class on the development of creativity with another leading figure in his field, Howard Gruber. We were required to write a paper on the creative processes of someone whom we chose. I chose Leonard Bernstein. I enjoyed reading his biographies, learning about his very complex personality, musicality, and personal life (by most accounts, Bernstein was really a gay man who married a woman, though he loved his wife very much). I found his life trajectory very fascinating, given his humble origins in Boston and not only his musical brilliance as a performer but also his ability to communicate to audiences and children. He had a bit of rabbi in him, educating others, and studying deeply, quite the scholar. It struck me that he was so uniquely American, a product of this culture in the best possible ways: Jewish, first-generation, artistic, intellectual, supporting black people and human rights and social justice. 

Not long after that class, there was some series on the works of Bernstein at Lincoln Center. I found out that his son Alexander was going to be there, and I had the chutzpah to take a copy of the paper I had written. I got to meet him after one talk, and Alexander was incredibly kind and gracious, and accepted the paper from that gushing 25-year-old who was a fan of his father. Much to my surprise, Alexander wrote me and praised my paper, and I was absolutely thrilled!

Over the years, I listened to more of Bernstein and both his own compositions as well as other pieces he conducted, even sung his work in a chorus. Yes, sometimes his conducting style was over-the-top and to put it mildly, expressive in a way that few other conductors were. He certainly had his detractors. But one need only to listen to his recordings of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 6 that starts slowly and then takes off like a windup doll, and the Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser with the NY Philharmonic from 1968 (a piece of music on my top 5 desert island choices) that is so beautifully phrased and expressive that it can move you to tears, or at least goosebumps. Just imagine that thick-featured, very handsome face breathing with the music as he moves like a ballet dancer on the podium, waving the baton as though it were an extension of his arm. And consider the irony of the most Jewish of men conducting the works of an anti-Semite who was loved by the biggest anti-Semite and demagogue who ever lived. That was Bernstein: making something his own, something so beautiful that it transcended hate.

A few years ago, his daughter Jamie narrated a concert that featured videos of his Young People’s Concerts with music from those concerts played live by the NY Philharmonic. It felt like a welcome re-introduction to Bernstein’s work and legacy, as I was not born when that program was shown on TV. What struck me was how accessible Bernstein was trying to make classical music, so that it became a part of a child’s education and not just something highbrow for wealthy, upper-class New Yorkers like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who was a big supporter of his). 

Bernstein always made music fun. He made it come alive with a tremendous sensual, erotic energy, full of highs and lows, just like the man himself. If memory serves me correctly, I remember reading a quote by his father that said, “How was I supposed to know that my son Leonard Bernstein was going to be the Leonard Bernstein?” There was never anyone quite like Leonard Bernstein, and there never will be. Happy Birthday, dear Lenny.

“The Chair” on Netflix: A Disappointment

I got a sneak preview to watch “The Chair” before it was officially available on Netflix (I guess I am cool enough to have had an ‘in’!) and the premise had really piqued my curiosity: a Korean-American professor is hired to be the chair of a flailing English department which is very much old guard, white male except for one black woman professor and one much older white woman professor. However, I was only able to watch one episode and part of a second before deciding to call it quits. I simply found the show very implausible and cliché-ridden.

What is novel is that the protagonist is an Asian-American woman who is an academic played by the talented Sandra Oh, and we see her speak Korean with her father–it is a rarity on screen to see anyone speaking a native tongue that isn’t Spanish. However, that seems to be one of the only things that really works for me in the show. Pembroke University, where his hired is presumably a top-tier one; sorry for the cultural arrogance, but we don’t see any Indian students in the classroom, which is completely unbelievable.

Also hugely inaccurate is the fact that the English department is all old white male, with the exception of a young black woman and an older white woman (excellently acted by Holland Taylor). No English department since the 70s has had all old white men who teach only Dead White Men; I grew up in a small Midwest college town and even there, the white men were teaching diverse writers and not all the faculty were white. This was what really killed it for me and made the show more of a caricature. This is not to say that there aren’t dinosaurs in departments and a lack of diversity in some (I left a terrible graduate program for this very reason). The one younger white male we see is again a cliché–Professor Dobson is the drunken, reasonably attractive man who is a little too close to his female students and can’t get his act together. English departments have been in the forefront of social progressiveness in the past few decades, both in terms of curriculum and faculty, incorporating multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQ writers, and leftist politics. 

Also problematic is the tone, which seems to hover uneasily between comedy and drama. We have moments of tremendous humor, such as when Holland Taylor’s Professor Hambling comments on an employee’s vulgar, scanty clothing, and then moments of seriousness, such as when Professor Kim is saddled with the task of conveying to the old guard that their classes have declining enrollments. There is no subtlety; things are either screwball, slapdash comical, or darkly true. Everything seems pasted together, every trope and issue in an English department or academia thrown together for a half-hour episode.

Perhaps a piece of my disdain is because I have struggled so long for academia to be seen as more than the clichés of professors having affairs or old white men, and have written a story collection with a more accurate depiction of academia and the emotional dilemmas that go on in a cast of diverse characters. I also worked at the English department at Stanford University after college, so I have insider knowledge of how things work. But beyond that, I just found “The Chair” to be rather a mess, which is sad because it really had so much potential. It was really exciting to see that there was going to be a series with an Asian-American woman as the lead, and who knows, maybe the writers and creators will do what is necessary in the field of English: revise.

What It Means to be from a Diaspora

The second entry under the Merriam-Webster definition of diaspora reads as follows: “People settled far from their ancestral homelands” and also “the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diaspora). This is the literal definition, but it is interesting to reflect on what it means in reality.

There is, indeed, a concept of a homeland, a home base, a place from which one’s people originate. Sometimes this is a place that exists; at other times, it is a historical phenomenon that is attached in the collective memory of a culture. This group of people ended up leaving the homeland, the reasons for the diaspora vary greatly. For some, it is forced, such as the slavery that the majority of black people in the West have endured. For others, it is to escape persecution, like the Jews or Cambodians. Others voluntarily choose to leave a homeland for better opportunities elsewhere, sometimes due to economics or politics–for example, people from developing countries where there are few resources and/or corruption such as India in the 1960s, and then also people escaping wars like Syrians, or those escaping political oppression of free speech like in Eastern Europe.

Then there is the issue of settling into their new land(s). Some peoples may fit in very well and integrate. For other people, it is a struggle, an effort that must be negotiated every day. Perhaps certain elements are easier to adapt to (say, jobs and work) than others. Some peoples maintain a memory of a homeland that stretches back hundreds or thousands of years, maintain a sense of longing or nostalgia for that which was before, to that which they will eventually reunite. For others, there may be the sense that they are a people with a new identity, maybe a hyphenated American, or a new world European in Latin America. Certain traditions may linger to commemorate events in their history, such as a Passover Seder. 

People who are part of a diaspora often have a greater sense of identity and vision as to who they are and their place in the world, often have an automatic kinship with people who are of their background but living in various countries. There is a commonality of history or experience. But this may not always be the case, as we can see within the Indian diaspora. Many Indian-Americans of my generation are children of parents who came for advanced studies upon their own volition. However, there are Indians who had settled in Africa for trade, but were forced to leave due to upheaval, such as Indians in Uganda during Idi Amin’s regime who fled to Britain; Indians brought to the Caribbean as slaves; and Tibetans living in India who were forced from their homeland by the Chinese (who are now Indian citizens) who come to the United States. 

Sometimes the people of a diaspora are numerous, such as Indians and Chinese, who come from countries of a billion people and who have settled all over the world. But there are others who come from tiny countries, such as Finland or Slovakia, who may have a hard time finding others of their same background.

Human migration is nothing new; we have seen it for millennia, as is evidenced by fossils of prehistoric men and women. In our modern world, however, the rate and speed of migration has greatly increased due to the advent of rapid transportation such as cars, airplanes, and trains. Our world is truly global, but the sad truth is that just as people migrate and spread, so do diseases such as Covid, which remind us of our common humanity, regardless of our background or where we live.

The Joy of the Olympics

There is something so soothing about rituals that we experience as a human being, and one of my favorites is the Olympics. I adore both the summer and winter Olympics, love the pageantry, the supreme physical prowess, edge-of-your-seat excitement, and most of all, the camaraderie that belies the international athletic rivalry. Despite the pandemic shutting down the Tokyo Summer Olympics last year, the games have gone ahead this year, branded as Tokyo 2020. It’s true that this was a risky decision, given there is a spike in the number of cases thanks to the Delta variant. Also, sadly, there were virtually no spectators other than fellow teammates from one’s country. That said, it was still a joy to watch the Tokyo 2020 games, is there is something so deeply exciting about them.

We have learned the importance of an audience; some people have refused to watch the games, saying they are not the same without the cheering spectators. This is true, for the presence of sound and fans really does something to amplify the emotions around a sporting event. Instead, we have focused on the athletes themselves, observing their movements and their skills, how they play the game or execute the maneuvers.

It is also exciting to rally around someone from one’s country. People who come from countries that seldom win medals or who have minimal representation compared to powerhouses like the United States and China feel this even more strongly. Consider Indonesia’s gold in women’s badminton, or India’s century-awaited gold medal win in javelin. We pin our hopes and dreams on these athletes, feeling their anguish as well as their jubilance when they win. We live vicariously through them, tossing our rackets in the air after a successful tennis game or crying with them when they have accomplished the life goal of competing in the Olympics.

On the social side, there have been some great victories, such as Sunisa Lee taking the gold in women’s all-around gymnastics as the first Hmong-American to compete in the Olympics. We have seen more gender-equal commentary from the broadcasters during the events, with even “gender reversal” of colors with a man wearing a pink shirt and a woman wearing a blue shirt!  And there has also been more humanity, with deep sympathy for Simone Biles prioritizing her mental health over competing in the games. 

 It’s true, this has been a much more introverted sort of Olympics with much less fanfare and excitement. But still, the games persisted, and the athletes carried on. We really needed this, something that is global and exciting to get us out of our pandemic shells. Sports are one of the great uniters among people, along with music, food, emotions, and celebrations. We need things that are out of the ordinary, especially at a time like this our lives have been so limited due to Covid. But the human spirit still goes on, gives us hope.

Further Thoughts on Critical Race Theory

This is in response to my earlier post: https://thewomenofletters.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=785&action=edit

In no way do I want to diminish the importance of Critical Race Theory, as I have often taught various aspects of it in my classrooms and with internationals. My point, however, was that it needs to be age-and population-specific, rather than a blanket, one-size-fits-all paradigm. My position is based on having come of age during political correctness in academia, and in seeing how it ended up being unconstructive and alienating rather than inclusive and constructive and fostering dialogue. All too often, I have found that well-meaning liberals have tried to foster social change in a way that seems to disregard the complexity of positions as well as the people that the paradigm is trying to serve. Also, I believe that knee-jerk reactions and cancel culture are not constructive.

I am appalled by people who deny the importance of racism, structural racism, discrimination, and the ugly parts of our history. A schoolteacher friend in the South told me of how many people are angry at students being taught CRT, people who still can’t accept that the “War of Northern Aggression” did not end well for the South. This is not to say there isn’t anti-CRT sentiment in the North or other parts of the country; in these places, there is often denial that a problem still exists, or that because people are individually nice that discrimination is done with, and all historical wounds healed. These are all serious, necessary, issues, and I hope they will be taught carefully and complexly in our schools and in academia. 

The Dangers of Being Anglophone

I have been an ESL teacher and tutor/editor/consultant to internationals for many years, and I always come away with a sense of gratitude for being a native speaker as I see students struggle with grammatical irregularities, odd pronunciations, bizarre idioms, and the myriad English accents. But my ESL/EFL students teach me as much as I teach them, not only about my own language but also about the dominant nature of English. While I do think it fortunate to be a native English speaker, I have also learned about the dangers of this, especially through my involvement in the polyglot community that really began deeply in the past year.

“Everybody in the world speaks English.” This is a mentality that many native Anglophones have, and it is all too easy to rely on this when we go abroad. With a couple rare exceptions, when I travel, I always make it a point to first ask, “Do you speak English?” as a courtesy to the other person, even when I am 99% sure that they do. I think this helps take the stigma away from English speakers being unwilling to learn other languages. Probably the most humbling experience of my life was the three weeks I spent in Salzburg, Austria at the Mozarteum Conservatory. Armed with two years of German study (plus the ability to speak other European languages), I figured I would do quite well. However, Austrian German is a different dialect from Hochdeutsch, there were very few Americans or native Anglophones, and even some of the internationals had opted to study German rather than English. Few people at the Conservatory spoke English. Master classes were largely conducted in German, but if the teacher could do so, s/he would speak English with those of us who were native speakers. It truly gave me an eye, even as a polyglot, into what it feels like to be a linguistic minority. Never had I been so relieved as when I landed in Finland to visit friends in Tampere who speak like natives, talk to a population that excels in English, and where there are tons of American TV shows that are not dubbed.

We have very particular sounds that are difficult to pronounce. These include the different ’th’ sounds, the English ‘a’ (as in cat), the frontal l, the z, and especially the peculiar English letter r. These subtleties are often things that non-native speakers cannot hear, or even produce. We have consonant clusters that are nearly impossible for some people to pronounce, given the insertion of vowels between them in their languages. Of course, there are sound that are very difficult for English speakers to pronounce in other languages, such as the Czech rz (written as an r with the diacritical mark over it), Italian rr, aspirated Korean consonants, or the Tamil ‘zh’ that many native speakers cannot even pronounce. The richness of sounds in our language is part of what makes it very difficult for those who learn English.

Another important aspect of our language that we must be aware of is its constant reinvention, especially in American English and with the advent of personal technology devices. We are a very scientifically advanced country, and therefore we are adding new words to our vocabulary. Texting has spawned a whole new genre of language, which one could argue often dumbs our language down. We are also a very young country, and so our vocabulary develops along with our social change. This may not be the case in other countries and cultures where their languages are ancient, and they may not have certain words for certain items or concepts. Bhutan is one example, as they only opened to the world a couple decades ago. They have to borrow words for science and technology. Therefore, we are in a sense forcing the rest of the world to use our form of communication. This adds to the hegemonic aspect of English.

English, especially American English, favors efficiency. Therefore, in our interactions, we can be very direct and fast. This may not go over with many other cultures, especially when doing business or diplomacy. It is imperative for people who work in these fields to understand the cultural context in which they are working and communicating.

These are just but a few points about which we must be mindful when speaking with non-native English speakers, especially when overseas. Even making the effort to learn a few words shows a willingness and humility to understand that the world is full of linguistic diversity. A Stanford professor who taught an undergraduate course on how to teach ESL suggested that everyone should spend one week per year learning the basics of a new language. That is truly an excellent suggestion–plus a lot of fun!