INKPOT#50 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein

A Tribute to Lenny

by Adrian Tan

(Signature image from the Leonard Bernstein Tribute Page.)

I’ve never been able to answer questions like “Who is your favorite composer or conductor?” because I could never quite make up my mind. Everyone on the musical canon from Bach to Philip Glass, Wilhelm Fürtwangler to Simon Rattle has given something of themselves to the world that is unique, wonderful and miraculous at one time or another.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is one such giant who has been an inspiration that has stayed with me right from my earliest days in music. He used to enjoy ‘demi-god’ status in my mind but after a while, we all come to realize that nobody enjoys any position higher than the divine art itself. Perhaps some other fans of Bernstein admire his exuberance and dynamism; for me, it has always been his ability to inspire musicians and layman-audiences alike with his TV programs, books and performances. The one person who could step down from the podium and explain to us what was the meaning of music yet maintaining and setting the highest levels of musical aesthetics in performance that we can only aspire to grasp.

His genius was acknowledged as a composer, interpreter, instrumentalist and most of all ‘communicator’ of music. As one of his fellow-composers wistfully commented,”there seems to be nothing he cannot do!” He is acclaimed for his interpretation of Mahler and Beethoven, leading renowned orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and his own New York Philharmonic to triumphant performances and superb recordings. Bernstein’s uncanny empathy with Mahler’s music perhaps stems from common Jewish origins, as both were conductors and composers, united in their incredible passion for music.

Passion is a big word for Bernstein and sometimes, even the word cannot describe the kind of commitment and emotional involvement he had with the music. One only has to watch a “live” performance of him conducting to see the extent if one cannot already hear the dangerous edge that he pushes the performers to dare. Do not compare him with Karajan or Solti. Why do we always like to compare? Each great musical performance is unique in itself and each transcends the ephemeral in its own way to every individual listener and performer. The rest is just biased opinion. What’s more left to say? Go listen to their recordings…

As a composer, Bernstein is often matched against Gershwin for the place of the “greatest crossover composer” or American music’s “greatest influence”. First and foremost, I think we have to recognize that although they shared some traits in common, they are vastly different personalities. Both of them (plus, of course, Aaron Copland) championed “American” music, embracing Jazz and American folk music instead of rejecting them as “non-classical” music.

Gershwin (left) is tuneful, simple and appealing. Bernstein is complex and deeply emotional. Compare the former’s Porgy and Bess and Lenny’s West Side Story: both are modern renditions of the Romeo and Juliet story. Gershwin drew on Negro spirituals and wrote wonderful melodies like “Summertime”, “Bess, you is my woman now” and “It ain’t necessarily so.” Bernstein wrote two memorable melodies “Maria” and “Somewhere”, scherzos, fugues – and who can forget “America” and “Mambo”! Certainly, Bernstein had a deeper classical base than Gershwin (which is understandable) but there we see that we have no grounds for comparison. Bernstein himself acknowledged that Gershwin was perhaps the greatest melodist since Schumann, but the Rhapsody in Blue is simply a collage of great tunes stuck together by weak glue. To demonstrate Bernstein’s prowess as a composer, let us not forget his Candide, the Chichester Psalms, On the Waterfront, Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and the three Symphonies – “Jeremiah”, “Age of Anxiety” and “Kaddish”. His struggle with tonality and atonality is perhaps one of the most illuminating studies on the subject. With the Psalms, he seems to have reached a conclusion that there is so much tonal music that we have yet to explore. With the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, he has shown that the amalgamation of Jazz, pop and classical forms can be more creative then adding a drum beat to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.

Let me recommend as well the books, The Infinite Variety of Music, The Joy of Music, The Unanswered Question: Six Lectures at Harvard and the television scripts for his “Omnibus” series to all avid music fans, layman or professional. His insight into the art is nothing less than brilliant. Whether one agrees or not cannot overshadow the amount of thought this man has put into music, and his ability to share this in words. The origins of harmony, music and linguistics, tonality and atonality, the genius of Mozart, music versus ‘muzak’ and the art of conducting; all given an in-depth look that is sincere and respectful, yet precise and critical. Leonard Bernstein is a teacher.

He has left an indelible impression on many, and there are those who have met the man or heard him “live” and marveled at his greatness. There are those like me who have but heard the music twice removed and have only read of him and of his greatness. Yet, I can say that even then, I have learnt and been moved. I only wish that I can share, in Lenny’s spirit, the work of this prodigious musician with those who have not given him due note and still dismiss him as an “attention seeker”, “madman on the podium” or “celebrity artist”.

Seek and ye shall find in Lenny the joy of music.

Adrian Tan doesn’t suffer from his madness… he’s enjoying every minute of it!

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