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August 25, 2010

Celebrating the lasting impact of Leonard Bernstein on his birthday

It’s Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, an occasion of gratitude and melancholy for me each year on Aug. 25.

He would have turned 92 on this date. His death 20 years ago robbed the music world – heck, the world at large – of an awesome talent, a riveting personality, a provocative thinker and advocate for so many valuable causes.

I’m thankful for every encounter I had with Bernstein’s music-making in person, and I’ll always treasure the few hours I spent in his company one night in his suite at the old Watergate Hotel (get your mind out of the gutter – it wasn’t that kind of night). But I always feel a little sad when Aug. 25 rolls around because it reminds me that I didn’t attend more of his concerts, and that he didn’t live to give us all more of his distinctive, profound approaches to music.

Most of today’s conductors, even the most wildly gifted and most wildly promoted, don’t reach anywhere near Bernstein's level. I miss his delicious daring, his ability to treat the notes on a page as a starting point, not a straight-jacket. I’ve attached a Bernstein the Bold example – his controversially slow account of

the “Nimrod” passage in Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” I know it must drive some folks crazy to hear it dragged out like this, but I find his shaping of this noble music irresistible and incredibly touching.

Bernstein was never just about being different. He was simply true to himself. Too often these days, the mantra of serving the composer gets turned into a kind of facelessness, a fussiness about staying within the lines. I’ve always believed music was soft clay, ever pliant, every willing to be molded in a fresh way, not a concrete form that must sound the same, be paced the same, be just as loud or soft in the same degree, time after time. Bernstein was a fabulously imaginative sculptor.

It wasn’t always a matter of stretching boundaries that made him so riveting. Check out the excerpt I’ve also attached of a movement from a Haydn symphony. Bernstein’s knack for emotion-gushing repertoire may be his most famous attribute, but he could be just as wonderfully communicative with elegant fare like this.

Here, then, two sides to the artistry of Bernstein that I’ll always treasure:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:57 AM | | Comments (3)


Thanks, Tim, for reminding us of LB birthday I had not heard his Nimrod...he does really make something special and intensely alive out of it.

Glad you liked it. TIM

After a long day at work, it was wonderful to hear such a majestic account of the Nimrod. Bernstein was wonderful, and he seemed to deeply understand the music of Mahler, Sibelius, and so many others. Like many creative and trailblazing musicians--a life cut too short.

Majestic is the word. Thanks for the comments. TIM

Thanks for posting this. I also miss Bernstein as a great teacher.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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