In death, Leonard Bernstein may finally outlive his critics.
Thursday, August 24, 2000
When someone argued that Brazil has great potential, Charles de Gaulle, president of France, rejoined, "And it always will." Despite his popularity with listeners, a similar attitude by his critics continues to pester the reputation of Leonard Bernstein, dead these last 10 long years.
Why do some critics and historians lament what might have been instead of concentrating on what actually was?
In 1983, conductor Leon Botstein published "The Tragedy of Leonard Bernstein" in The Atlantic Monthly, an angry scolding of Lenny for his failure to shake off his conspicuous narcissism in favor of devoting himself to composing "serious" music at the highest level of his obviously awesome talent.
And the carping continues. In the July issue of Opera News, erstwhile Los Angeles Times critic Martin Bernheimer makes a fool of himself by reprinting a petty and petulant review he published in 1986 of a Bernstein concert in L.A., then adding Bernstein''s own letter of response, written wickedly in Bernheimer''s Queen Bitch style. In short, Bernstein out-Bernheimers Bernheimer, and with far fewer words.
Following Bernstein''s delivery of the prestigious C. E. Norton lectureship at Harvard, a series of six lecture/demos that were documented for release in video, audio and print, American composer Milton Babbitt wrote, "For all his considerable skills as a pianist, a conductor of a certain repertory, a composer of a certain repertory, Leonard Bernstein--in an apparent attempt to ''justify'' his ignorance of significant sectors of contemporary thinking in and about music--chose to invoke the most satisfying of tautologies: ''If I don''t know it, it''s not worth knowing,'' or ''If I don''t understand it, it''s not worth understanding.'' His grotesque misrepresentation of the twelve-tone syntax in his notorious Norton Lecture I attribute--in all generosity--to ignorance rather than malice, while his assertion that he never encountered anyone who ''loved'' Schoenberg''s music is a revelation of the company he kept, as well as his naïvete with respect to professions of love."
Why so defensive, Milton? Music is a language, as capable of slang as it is of poetry. It can aspire to avant garde thought as easily as it can wallow in societal degradation. As Herbert Blomstedt complained to Kathleen Battle after numerous rehearsal retakes of the same passage, "It''s only music."
The whirling dervish who was alternately an exceptional pianist, magnetic conductor, composer of brashly exciting theater and conservatively fashioned concert works and a gifted teacher, Bernstein once said of himself, "What seems right for me at any given moment is what I must do, at the expense of pigeonholing or otherwise limiting my service to music."
Joan Peyser, in preparing her article "The Bernstein Legacy" for the July Opera News discovered that, "his influence on American composers would appear be have been greater than anybody else''s." She quotes conductor Robert Spano, in his late 30s music director of the Atlanta Symphony and Brooklyn Philharmonic: "Today''s musical landscape is far more pluralistic than it once was. Bernstein symbolized the cross between concert music and Broadway, as well as the demise of the academic view."
Indeed, it is this "cross" that echoes in so many of the new works heard in recent seasons of the Cabrillo Music Festival. As Bernstein lived large, intense, even extreme, one hears his example in the works of John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse, Aaron Jay Kernis, even James MacMillan, the young Scottish composer.