Bernstein's legacy is musical riches

August 22, 1993|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

What a swell party it would have been. Leonard Bernstein's 75th birthday, that is. There will be celebrations throughout the music world, of course, including an all-star gala at New York's Lincoln Center on the actual day, Aug. 25, but it won't be the same. Without the incomparable conductor around to share in the fun, there will be something bittersweet lingering in the air.

It has been lingering since Bernstein's death in 1990. Obviously, musical life has gone on and will continue to thrive wherever culture is extant. And, just as obviously, exceptional talents will emerge, will captivate, even excite audiences for varying periods of time. But another Bernstein? Not a chance.

Even critics who didn't really give a hoot about him when he was around have been known to write wistfully of the days when his gigantic personality sparked magical performances.

And folks who loved to mock his podium pirouettes, or his penchant for bestowing bear hugs and sloppy kisses on anyone within reach at curtain-call time, may well long for such enthusiasm amid the ordinariness of most concert experiences today.

Even those who loathed the man -- his sizable ego, his pronouncements on world affairs, his dalliance with trendy causes, his sexual ambiguity -- probably wouldn't mind encountering someone so interesting now.

As for those who were susceptible to the Bernstein spell, who felt fortunate to be in his presence, to learn from him about music or poetry or life -- well, they will always feel his loss.

Was he really so extraordinary?

The most reverberant response to that question is preserved in hundreds of recordings, dozens of videos. They document a triple legacy -- Bernstein the conductor, the composer, the teacher. Those components are not exactly equal in value, but they aren't really too far apart, either.

As a teacher, Bernstein had an uncanny gift for explaining the complexities of music without sounding complex -- and without condescension. The charm and inventiveness of his approach helped to open minds and ears of more than one generation. Now, thanks to VCRs, many more generations may benefit.

Twenty-five of Bernstein's much-loved "Young People's Concerts," broadcast on CBS from 1958 to 1972, have been transferred to video. Music education and appreciation doesn't get any better than this. (The tapes are being made available to schools and libraries this month through the Leonard Bernstein Society in New York; they'll reach the public in the fall, marketed by the Smithsonian Institution.)

As a composer, Bernstein never made it to the level of Gustav Mahler, one of his musical heroes, a rare case of a man equally gifted as a conductor and composer. But many of Bernstein's works seem to increase in value each year, and the best of them will not likely leave the active repertoire. Even his flawed, uneven creations have a way of attracting renewed interest periodically, for there is always something potent to be found in them.

It can be argued that Bernstein's greatest talent was revealed on the podium. If he had never written a note of his own music, if he had never uttered an instructive word on music, his conducting would have left a giant enough impression to guarantee lasting fame.

Obviously, not every score Bernstein touched turned to aural gold, but it is almost impossible to find a thoughtless, lifeless performance in is long career.

To be sure, other conductors may be thoughtful and energetic. But it was the particularly intense combination of intellect and passion that elevated most of Bernstein's efforts, eclipsing those by lesser mortals.

He often shed new light on well-worn pieces, bending a phrase or a tempo in some unexpected way or simply firing up the material with such irresistible force that it seemed freshly composed before your very ears.

Of course, when familiar music sounded too different in Bernstein's hands, it made some listeners hear red -- their artistic senses were outraged. To them, Bernstein meant nothing but exaggeration and self-indulgence.

Did he really go too far?

That depends. If you believe that the written notes of a score are as immutable as paint frozen on a canvas, then, yes, Bernstein went too far. But if you accept music as a living, ever-changeable force, a kind of soft clay that is supposed to be molded in different ways by every musician, then Bernstein was well within his rights.

At the very least, Bernstein had the ability to make people think. Listeners were always forced to form an opinion about what they were hearing; they could not be passive participants in the artistic process. They had to become involved, whether they liked it or not.

"Life without music is unthinkable," Bernstein wrote in 1967. "Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace."

The greatest benefit from that "total embrace" is that it meant embracing every audience, too.

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