Leonard Bernstein and Alexander Frey, 1987
The 2008-2009 season finds celebrations all over the world commemorating the 90th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. It also marks the 65th anniversary when a young conductor stepped onto the podium in front of the venerable New York Philharmonic in a sold-out Carnegie Hall. It was 1943: the United States was at war, patriotism was high and the time was ripe for America to receive her first native musical hero with open arms. With millions of people across the country listening live on the radio, Leonard Bernstein gave the downbeat and blazed into that role. And the rest, as they say, is history.
During this anniversary year, a retrospective re-examination of Bernstein’s innumerable artistic accomplishments is inevitable. And certainly, one of the questions that will be asked is “What was his greatest accomplishment?” Was Bernstein’s highest achievement as composer, conductor or educator? Consider all those television lectures in which he taught music to a whole generation, or those revolutionary, sophisticated Broadway scores that set a high standard still unmet by a large percent of today’s musical theater composers. Think about all the hundreds of young musicians he helped and inspired or the many social causes to which he tirelessly devoted himself. What exactly was Leonard Bernstein’s greatest accomplishment?
I was one of those young musicians who Bernstein inspired. In March of 1985, I was in New York to perform at Alice Tully Hall. Lenny invited me over to his apartment in the Dakota for a drink afterwards. It was our first meeting. I told him of my great interest in studying his own works with him. At the time, it seemed to the Maestro that young conductors were more interested in studying Mahler, Beethoven and Stravinsky with him rather than Bernstein. He was touched that I wanted to concentrate on his own music. So on that evening, Lenny opened up a bottle of scotch and together we opened up the score of his Jeremiah Symphony. We worked for hours far into the night and also talked about…well, everything.
Years later, I am, as always, as dedicated to his music as I was on that winter night in 1985. During this 90th birthday celebratory year, I have had the unique experiences of playing Bernstein’s complete piano works in various countries, conducted the Czech production of West Side Story in Prague and the world premieres of the complete restored score of Peter Pan in both concert version in Lisbon (created by Nina Bernstein Simmons, the Maestro's daughter) and the first stage production in Santa Barbara. And looking at the sheer diversity of musical styles in all these works, I found myself reflecting on his life’s work and joining the chorus asking the question “What was his greatest accomplishment?”
I love listening to and performing Bernstein’s music. Yes, there is his sophisticated harmonic language, the “melodic concatenation”, the ingenious combining of tonal and atonal elements and the use of jazz. There is a total naturalness to his music, a sheer emotional quality that speaks to the heart; pieces of endearing lightness and mournful heaviness, joyful praise and lonely laments, moving tenderness and hard conflict, the brightest of sunrises and the darkest of nightmares. In short, the entire complicated and thorny range of human emotions. Bernstein traversed them all and took us with him on a most breathtaking kind of journey.
Bernstein’s desire to share every experience and feeling with others was an important aspect of his character that was encountered by anyone who came into contact with him or his music. It was not unintentional that he wrote on the first page of his piano work, Touches: “Touches = gestures of love, especially between composer and performer, performer and listener…” For me, this was Lenny’s artistic creed.
I’ve always felt that a great accomplishment is something to which one commits his whole heart and soul for the betterment and benefit of others. Lenny committed his entire being to everything he did, whether conducting a Mahler symphony, teaching at Tanglewood or Schleswig-Holstein (and don’t forget his beloved Harvard), composing Jeremiah, Age of Anxiety, Kaddish, Mass or Candide, raising money for Amnesty International or giving quality time to inspire and talk to a young musician.
In this sense, all of Leonard Bernstein’s achievements were his greatest accomplishment.
© Alexander Frey, 2009