MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Remembering Lenny

Lenny in 1971, when he was rehearsing his new work Mass to open the Kennedy Center

So today Leonard Bernstein would have turned 95 [97]. If he were Elliott Carter, he’d still have about nine [seven] years left to share his genius with us — and Lord knows the world could desperately use it. I can still feel a pang when I pass by the Dakota on Central Park West; strangely, that Sunday afternoon in October when he died there doesn’t seem so far off.

I got to meet him just once, near the end of his life, when he was touring with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting a program of Mahler Five paired with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I waited patiently afterward to get him to sign the book I happened to have on me — the first volume of Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, which immediately prompted him to set aside his bottomless glass of Ballantine’s scotch and exclaim incredulously, “That’s my favorite book! Do you realize Bloch is the perfect book to go with Mahler?! Unbelievable!” And then he took another deep drag on his endless chain of L&M cigarettes.

Whenever I used to hear about folks who first fell in love with music thanks to the inspiration they found in Leonard Bernstein’s famous Young People’s Concerts, their accounts simultaneously intrigued me and left me feeling a touch jealous. The heyday of the series was before my time, so I never ended up seeing any of them until years later, when they became available on DVD. I can’t help but imagine how much these would have changed my life, too, if I’d had the opportunity to discover them when I was growing up.

Actually, I do have another gift from Lenny for which I remain eternally grateful. I can vividly recall chancing upon some PBS re-broadcast of his legendary Norton Lectures, first delivered at Harvard in the early 1970s and drawing on Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory of transformational grammar, just around the time music was starting to become a force in my life.

Instantly I was hooked. To judge by what I can still remember from that first viewing — even taking into account the “creative reconstruction” that’s inherent to the process of memory — this encounter was remarkably formative. It didn’t just serve as my first crash course in music history and theory, in how to listen beyond the surface and look for structures and connections, but it even imparted a whole philosophy about music and its capacity to mean, to be at least as significant as everything else I cherished — maybe even more.

“I also believe, along with Keats, that the poetry of earth is never dead,” I remember Lenny declaring in his credo, “as long as spring succeeds winter, and man is there to perceive it.” The way he imparted these observations, as if they were a confidence shared with his prized students, was a perfect example of yet another gift of this impossibly gifted, complicated, multi-layered man — Bernstein as the great teacher and rabbi. He ended with this summing-up:

I believe that our deepest affective responses to these languages are innate ones that do not preclude additional responses that are conditioned or learned. And that all particular languages bear on one another, and combine into always new idioms perceptible to human beings, and that ultimately these idioms can all merge into a speech universal enough to be accessible to all mankind. And that the expressive distinctions among these idioms depend ultimately on the dignity and passion of the individual creative voice.

And finally, I believe that all these things are true, and that Ives’ “Unanswered Question” has an answer. I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know the answer, and the answer is, “Yes.”

Lenny the polymath: here he conducts and plays solo in one of the most exquisite scores I know, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

Filed under: American music, Bernstein, composers

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