Leonard Bernstein turned 100 last Saturday. Did you remember to send a card? Of course not. He’s been dead for 28 years. Some think it was earlier because although he was still walking around right up until mid October, 1990, though that might have been postmortem spasms like Mike the headless chicken.
Bernstein the cultural icon, the Grrreat Conductor, piano player, composer, educator etc, etc! It took decades for the New York Philharmonic to recover from his chaotic and dissonant style. Decades, and the materializing at Lincoln Center of an East German, Kurt Masur, who was used to conducting bands with twice the population of the New York band.
Once Masur righted the ship, he was shipped back to Leipzig. The patrons loved him. Orchestra management did not.
Bernstein was lauded by the ever-shrinking pool of big money classical music fans. He was better doing his comedy act at Cafe Wha in Greenwich Village as a young man than he was waving his stick in hysterical and unreadable patterns, a swoon on his face, before 105 members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802.
Critics called Bernstein the “greatest interpreter of Mahler.” What? Mahler needs no interpretation. His music speaks for itself.
Bernstein wrote the music that turned a decent story into the worst Broadway musical of modern times, “West Side Story.” Dissonance where harmony was needed. That was Lenny.
And he’s the guy for whom the term “Limousine Liberal” was created. It’s hard to be seen as a champion of the worker or oppressed minority from the back of a 21-foot-long Chrysler Imperial from a time when that company still knew how to make a car.
A famous party in his Park Avenue duplex, with members of the Panthers among the guests, remains immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1970 marathon article in New York Magazine.
But his politics didn’t really matter and the other guests, musical hotshots and society couples all thought the party was cute.
When you’re a big star, there’s no reason you can’t party with whom you please. And if you’re a big star there’s no reason you can’t ride in more than 20 feet of tin,even if you don’t need the room. Music is another matter.
It wasn’t as well received as the publicists would have you believe. And it’s still not being well received. Here’s what the New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe said recently of a new performance of Bernstein’s “Mass”
“... after revisiting this two-hour extravaganza ... when it was presented by Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, I think that if it’s not his worst, it surely reflects his worst tendencies: his allergy to self-editing, his saccharine streak, his embarrassing wordplay, his obsession with (and tone-deafness toward) youth culture, his weak counterfeits of pop styles.”
(Note, Zachary Woolfe and Tom Wolfe are not related.)
Lenny the Ax did all he could to chop down the tallest trees in the musical forest. He failed. And we are all the better for it.
I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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