An American musical treasure described with cautious notes

July 24, 1994|By Scott Duncan | Scott Duncan,Orange County Register

It was a mild surprise when British television director Humphrey Burton was selected by Leonard Bernstein's estate to write the first authoritative biography since the conductor's death in 1990.

But the British, sadly, are more impassioned caretakers of the American musical tradition than we are. So the Bernstein family gave Mr. Burton, an inexperienced biographer who directed many of Bernstein's video and television projects, access to letters and other material in the Bernstein archive, as well as private letters of Bernstein's wife, Felicia, and the journals of Jamie Bernstein, his eldest daughter.

Mr. Burton responded with a thorough chronicle that uses a clear, objective tone and a loving eye for detail to set forth Bernstein's remarkable career.

The nature of classical music journalism is such that the darker side of Bernstein's personality did not receive wide circulation until Joan Peyser's sensational biography in the late '80s. Her book attempted to fill in the wide gaps in the Bernstein persona, gaps that revealed the sexual promiscuity, the physically abusive use of tobacco and alcohol, the perpetual late-night carousing and the obsession with a peripatetic conducting lifestyle that may have shortchanged a prodigious composing talent.

Mr. Burton does not shy from these elements of the Bernstein story. He presents them in a subdued context and is diligent to venture only as far into conclusion as the evidence will allow.

But at times he seems to err on the side of caution. Conductor Dmitri Mitropoulus and composer Aaron Copland, both homosexual, were captivated by the strikingly handsome Bernstein when he was a brilliantly talented student emerging from Harvard.

Bernstein by then was sleeping with both men and women, an ambivalence that beset him throughout most of his life. Both Mitropoulus and Copland wrote strongly affectionate correspondence to Bernstein that implied they were on the most intimate terms.

Does it really matter? Perhaps not, when the most important context is the influence these figures had on Bernstein as he weighed his future as a conductor or composer.

Yet the missing information creates in one's mind a sense of doubt and the unsettling feeling that an unpleasant subject has not been fully explored. It is a recurring theme.

Also lacking in Mr. Burton's book is a thread interweaving the narrative to hint at the broader patterns of Bernstein's life, the design that gives coherence to his lengthy, chaotic career and complicated personality.

Bernstein was a wreck, emotionally and physically, by the time he died at 72. This book is best when his life was best, in those heady decades of the '40s and '50s when Bernstein's talent seemed to overflow the boundaries of opera or Broadway; conductor or composer; concert hall or television studio.

In those years, Bernstein wrote the ballet "Fancy Free," the musicals "On the Town" and "West Side Story," the film score to "On the Waterfront," the opera "Trouble in Tahiti" and the operetta "Candide"; conducted Maria Callas in a sensational "Medea" at La Scala; began his successful campaign to find Gustav Mahler a place in the orchestral repertory; was named the first American music director of New York Philharmonic, and created his famous "Omnibus" and "Young People's Concerts" television programs.

It was a hectic pace that produced some of the most memorable musical treasures of the century. Much of the Bernstein discourse has been about why he could not sustain that pace in the final decades of his life -- what might have happened had he taken different paths.

But Mr. Burton's book, exhaustive and inconclusive as it is, puts us back in touch with how much extraordinary work Bernstein was able to create. He carried a heavy burden; he may never live up to our expectations or fulfill our need to explain his talent and personal demons. But the author makes us realize what a gift Bernstein was and how much American music will miss him.

Mr. Duncan is former music critic of The Evening Sun.

Title: "Leonard Bernstein"

Author: Humphrey Burton

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 594 pages, $25

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