Friday, September 26, 2008

My Lenny

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm not entirely sure what the occasion is for "Our Lenny," a celebration/retrospective of the legendary musician Leonard Bernstein that's airing on WNYC, New York's public-radio station; sure, it's the 90th anniversary of his birth in 1918, but why 90? Why not 100? That number sounds more "celebratory," to me. Whatever. The program started a couple days ago, it's running for a little over two weeks, and it has recently gotten me to reflect on how Bernstein, in a certain way, affected my own way of looking at music, art and the world. If the following personal testimonial sounds like fanboy gush, I apologize, but in this case, the man is, for the most part, worth the gush.


I don't remember exactly which year it happened---it was probably during one of my middle-school or junior-high-school years---but one day, I was browsing through the classical-music section of my local library, and I came across a box set they had available that piqued my interest. It was Leonard Bernstein's second complete Mahler symphony cycle on the Deutsche Grammophon label, and the first thing I noticed was that each jewel case of the 13-disc set was a photo of the grand old man Bernstein, always in the midst of symphonic rapture, eyes closed or face in a half-smile, living the emotion of a particular musical moment onstage.

But I didn't pick the set up primarily because of the conductor. At the time I had developed a mild obsession with Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony (his second, for those who aren't hip to it), especially its finale, a visionary 30-plus-minute epic narrative that plumbs the depths of, well, sonic and spiritual death and transfiguration (to borrow the title of a Richard Strauss tone poem). I had heard one previous CD recording of the work---a reasonably fine Teldec disc with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic---but Bernstein's interpretation was something else entirely.

In the finale, about 10 or so minutes in, after a brief hushed moment from the lower strings (this coming after a powerfully sustained orchestral tutti), a drumroll materializes from the ether and begins a gradual crescendo, underpinned by tam-tam. At the peak of its crescendo, the brass punches out three notes; Another gradual-crescendo drumroll/tam-tam combo occurs, followed by the brass punching out two more notes until the entire orchestra bursts in---the "march of the dead" has begun. It's a breathtaking passage, and Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic played it in suitably impressive fashion. But then I turned to the equivalent passage in the Bernstein recording and it was like hearing something from another world. As he and the New York Philharmonic played it in their 1987 DG recording, he stretches out that initial drumroll to about 20 long-drawn seconds before the brass enter; I'm not sure I could ever do it justice in merely trying to describe it, but the effect, as executed by Bernstein and his orchestra, was exhilarating, alive and absolutely nuts---a total fulfillment of the "Christendom gone mad" characterization Bernstein articulated in an essay about Mahler that was included in the box set.

That week I rabidly devoured the rest of that box set, and each recording provided one profound emotional epiphany after another: the glowing hymn to love that rounds off Mahler's gigantic Third, the terrifying depths of despair and tragedy covered by his Sixth, the modernistic weirdness of the Seventh, the bleak leave-takings of the concluding Adagio of his Ninth (answered with a bit more affirmation with the opening Adagio of his unfinished Tenth). All these delirious sounds were coming out of my radio, being channeled from the pages of Mahler's score through Bernstein's baton through my speakers. Under Bernstein, Mahler's music embraced profound emotional extremes, and that certainly spoke to me during a time in my life---adolescence---when I couldn't help but feel those extremes and embrace artworks that expressed exactly what I felt, or what I wished I could feel, in raw, uncompromising terms.

Bernstein's emotionally generous, yet never crude, approach to Mahler---and to just about all of the music he composed and conducted through his long and illustrious career---is not the only one, of course, and one could certainly make the argument that, as an interpreter in general, Bernstein had a tendency to put himself above the music he was supposed to serve, especially in concert when he made his own athletic podium manner a part of the attraction. Egotism and exhibitionism? Maybe. And yet, I think it would be short-sighted of me to deny the profound effect Bernstein's music-making had In one fell swoop, he helped open my eyes to a certain way of approaching art: an approach that isn't afraid of feeling, of finding rough beauty in ugliness, and, above all, isn't overly concerned with maintaining good manners at the expense of human warmth. (It's a temperament that, by all accounts, extended into his personality and personal life---his desire to bring the joy of music to everyone's life.) Perhaps I've been unduly spoiled by his openhearted, soul-baring emotionalism, but it's the kind of feeling I can't help but crave from artworks these days---music, movies or otherwise.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't take the time to mention that this is one of my favorite records ever, and that if you haven't heard Bernstein's live 1988 take on Shostakovich's much-maligned "Leningrad" Symphony, as performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its pulverizing brass, oh boy, are you missing out!

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