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: