On Leonard Bernstein

I confess that, for a long time, I wasn’t a big fan of Leonard Bernstein the conductor. My order-oriented brain couldn’t make sense of his shameless theatricality, and I couldn’t understand why someone who conducted Haydn so well couldn’t transfer some of the old man’s precision to the rest of his work. There was also the New York Philharmonic, whose years under Bernstein’s admittedly dynamic and creative leadership, saw too many performances where enthusiasm took the place of unanimity.

Of course, I now realize that all that was youthful balderdash. Bernstein’s ability to get an orchestra to go to any lengths to realize his sometimes-crazy vision, and to sweep an audience along with it, was unparalleled. He was nothing if not a supreme communicator, one who never lost sight of the easily forgotten truth that music exists to be heard, and that the performer’s job is to make the audience pay attention.

Despite my suspicions that somehow he was spreading himself too thin, I always liked Bernstein the composer and I still do. West Side Story is a masterpiece, period, and Candide—at least for its first act—isn’t far behind. And even the “serious” works like Mass or The Age of Anxiety, pieces that strain credibility and occasionally border on the embarrassing, are such  accurate reflections of their time that one can usually forgive their excesses.

There’s a Joni Mitchell song that includes the lines “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” As we search the horizon for a musician of half Bernstein’s ability and even one quarter his energy, his life’s work seems all the more meaningful, his loss that much greater.

We really miss you, Lenny.


KWMU commentary 1993, revised 2019