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.

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

  1. Thank you for this accurate and moving tribute to Leonard Bernstein. You clearly know your subject well both as a musician and writer. I especially like your closing paragraph where you state: “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.” (I often think of Bernstein as the Marlon Brando of conductors.)

    My introduction to Bernstein came through my mother, who once studied the piano. And as a teen in the 1950s, she enjoyed watching his TV program on classical music, Omnibus. In short, she loved Bernstein’s dramatis personae; I remember seeing his biography sitting on her coffee table for years.

    Although I’ve been listening to classical and romantic music for years, I do not understand it from the perspective of a musician. For example, it took me years to understand the significance of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. However, when I watch videos of Bernstein conducting, I see both a great performer and conductor, which is quite different from watching the understated style of Herbert Blomstedt. I was lucky enough to see Blomstedt give his last performance as the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony in 1995. His presence seemed to recede as he conducted, which seemed to intensify the symphonies in some way. In contrast, Bernstein’s presence was electrifying, like a thunderbolt.

    • As always, Todd, you have the wonderful things to share and great experiences! It seems like Bernstein touched so many people’s lives in different ways. Blomstedt was indeed a different style than Bernstein, and it is a fair criticism to say that sometimes Bernstein could go too far. How lucky you saw Blomstedt’s last performance with the SF Symphony! Michael Tilson Thomas (who followed) was actually a protege of Bernstein’s. Lenny’s legacy was truly incredible and endless!

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