Stories » Leonard Bernstein career offers a lesson in the perils of hero worship / The New Yorker

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Leonard Bernstein career offers a lesson in the perils of hero worship / The New Yorker

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Worldwide celebrations of the hundredth birthday of Leonard Bernstein, which fell on August 25th, have touted the man as a kind of musical superhero, who conquered every medium he touched: conducting, composing, Broadway shows, education, television, the intricate game of American celebrity. 

The centenary year has yielded not only hagiography but also candid biographical accounting. Jamie Bernstein, one of Bernstein's three children, has written a riveting, disconcerting memoir, "Famous Father Girl," which gives an unsparing picture of the downward spiral of her father's later years, when he was "prone to throwing lit cigarettes at us across the dinner table or calling people ‘fuckface.' " Charlie Harmon, who served as Bernstein's assistant in the nineteen-eighties, is even more explicit, in "On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein," documenting the maestro's habit of patting his assistants' crotches. Yet neither book is a denunciation of its subject: a troubled adoration persists, along with a sympathy for Bernstein's inner torments.

Bernstein's more or less official birthday party took place at the Tanglewood festival, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. This was fitting, since he grew up in and around Boston, and effectively began his conducting career at Tanglewood, in 1940, when he took up studying with Serge Koussevitzky. That career ended in the same place, fifty years later, on August 19, 1990, when Bernstein led Beethoven's Seventh, faltering briefly in the middle. He died in New York two months later, his body ravaged by alcohol, amphetamines, and cigarettes.

Tanglewood's centennial concert involved five conductors-Michael Tilson Thomas, Christoph Eschenbach, Keith Lockhart, John Williams, and Andris Nelsons, the current music director of the Boston Symphony-together with Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, Thomas Hampson, Susan Graham, and, for choreographed excerpts from "West Side Story," a gang of Broadway singers. Audra McDonald served as host and sang "Somewhere" as an encore. About fifteen thousand people were in attendance, with a huge crowd filling the lawn outside the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

The anniversary year has also brought a flurry of recordings, together with inevitable repackagings of Bernstein's huge catalogue for the Sony and DG labels. A new account of "Mass," with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, fails to match the blazing conviction that Marin Alsop achieved on a 2009 recording. A disk of Bernstein's three symphonies, with Antonio Pappano conducting the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, lacks urgency. But Kent Nagano's rendition of "A Quiet Place," in a nimble chamber-orchestra version by Garth Edwin Sutherland, is the best argument yet for Bernstein's final stage work. I gave particular attention to the prelude to Act III, the passage that Harmon describes in his book. Here the score withdraws into itself, exposing the ache behind the limpid melodies that Bernstein spun so effortlessly. It is the music of unquiet nights, in which music itself is the only consolation. ♦

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