Leonard Bernstein retires as orchestral conductor

October 10, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the most famous musician in the history of the United States, announced yesterday that he was retiring from conducting for health reasons.

The announcement, which was made by his public relations firm, quoted his doctor as saying that Mr. Bernstein suffered from "progressive emphysema, complicated by a pleural tumor and a series of pulmonary infections."

The conductor has canceled all scheduled engagements. His doctor said that only rest and recuperation will permit Mr. Bernstein -- the composer of several Broadway musicals, including "West Side Story" -- to return to a limited schedule that would include writing, composing and teaching.

A four-pack-a-day smoker, the 72-year-old conductor -- who regularly rehearsed with his baton in one hand and a cigarette in the other -- has suffered from emphysema since he was a young man.

"I was diagnosed as having emphysema in my mid-20s, and I've been smoking for decades," Mr. Bernstein boasted to an interviewer only a few years ago. "I was told that if I didn't stop I'd be dead by age 25. . . . Well, I beat the rap."

That he could not continue to beat the rap became obvious last summer at the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood Festival -- where the Boston-born Mr. Bernstein had learned his craft. He had to cancel a few concerts and was seen off stage at those he did conduct with a cigarette in one hand and an inhalator in the other. When he canceled a world tour with his beloved Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, the orchestra of students that he works with every summer in rural Massachusetts, music insiders knew that Mr. Bernstein was seriously ill.

Nevertheless, the reaction to yesterday's announcement was one of shock.

"I could more easily believe that he was dead than that he was never going to conduct again," said Mark Ginzburg, the principal second violinist in the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra of which the conductor was music director between 1957 and 1969 and of which he is now conductor laureate. "He had more musical talent, more emotion, more intellect, more technique -- more of everything than anyone else."

"Leonard Bernstein has been the New York Philharmonic for more than 45 years," said Albert K. Webster, the Philharmonic's executive director. "We will all be less for the loss of his magic baton."

"This is a tremendous loss for me and the Boston Symphony, for Tanglewood and for the entire musical world," said Seiji Ozawa, music director of the Boston Symphony, who had been Mr. Bernstein's student at Tanglewood and his assistant at the Philharmonic.

Mr. Bernstein made perhaps the most sensational conducting debut in history. Early in the 1943-1944 season, the New York Philharmonic announced to a world that was not exactly agog with interest that it had engaged a 25-year-old Harvard graduate as its assistant conductor. In the normal course of things, that would have been the last anyone would have heard of Mr. Bernstein, for obscurity is the assistant conductor's lot.

But the night before a November concert, guest conductor Bruno Walter became ill, and to the rescue came Mr. Bernstein, who seemed a most unlikely Galahad. For one thing, the youngster did not even own a set of formal wear. For another, he was unfamiliar with most of the music on the program, which included the world premiere of a new work by Miklos Rozsa, along with Richard Strauss' conductor-killing "Don Quixote."

Clad in a business suit, Mr. Bernstein conducted a concert that those who were there -- including the critics of every major New York newspaper -- said they would never forget. The concert became national news because Sunday afternoon Philharmonic performances were broadcast live over the CBS Radio Network. By the Sunday dinner hour, the name Leonard Bernstein was on the lips of every music lover in America.

Before a dozen years passed, it became apparent that there had rarely been a talent as multi-faceted as his. Not only was he a prodigiously gifted conductor and composer, both of serious and Broadway works, but he was also a formidable pianist, author of best-selling books about music, an educator and television personality.

It was TV that transformed Mr. Bernstein into an icon. Handsome, witty and charming, he was made for the medium. A whole generation now in their 30s and 40s grew to love music because of the broadcasts of his "Young People's Concerts." He was fascinating whether he explained the structure of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 or illustrated relations between popular and serious music by accompanying himself at the keyboard in vigorous versions of songs by the Kinks or the Beatles.

When he was named the Philharmonic's new music director in 1957, it marked a turning point in the national consciousness. It was not just that America had a musician important enough for the Philharmonic, but that it finally had enough cultural self-confidence to name one of its own to such a position.

This is not to say that Mr. Bernstein did not have detractors. Many critics scorned the "Lenny leaps" of his choreographed conducting style, and his extremely liberal politics brought him under additional fire -- most notably from author Tom Wolfe in his 1970 account, "Radical Chic," of the ridiculous black-tie event that Mr. Bernstein and his wife sponsored to raise money for the Black Panthers.

But just when it seemed that Mr. Bernstein's stock had fallen, it began to rise again. In 1969, he had left the Philharmonic and begun to conduct regularly in Europe. In Vienna, home of most of the great composers in European history, Mr. Bernstein was idolized, and that revived his reputation at home. By the 1980s, his only rival as the world's most famous conductor was Herbert von Karajan, who died last year.

"No one else did music with that intensity and that total command," said Mr. Ginzburg. "If he really is gone, there is no one else you can think of to replace him."

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