BERNSTEIN: AN ARTIST WHO MADE A DIFFERENCE
By Lawrence Budmen
It has been nearly 15 years since Leonard Bernstein passed away. In the intervening period, many books and articles have been written about his personal and professional eccentricities. (Much of this was based on rumors rather than serious research.) Far more importantly, Bernstein was an artist who made a difference. It would be hard to imagine the musical world today had he not been such a major artistic force. His influence continues to be felt through his students and his disciples and that influence has helped shape South Florida's musical life.
Bernstein was a brilliantly gifted, multi-talented musician. As a composer, his contributions to the American musical theater were historic. "West Side Story" is a bona fide classic. "Candide," a sparkling comic operetta, is just now coming into its own. His earlier shows "On the Town" and "Wonderful Town" were charming valentines to his adopted city at a time when New York truly was a great place. Of his symphonic works, the "Serenade for Violin, Strings, and Percussion" is a masterpiece that embodies the many influences and facets of Bernstein's musical personality. (It was brilliantly played by violinist Vadim Gluzman with the Florida Philharmonic under Joseph Silverstein in 2002.) His "Symphony No.1 - "Jeremiah" is a deeply felt testament of faith. (Mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar and the New World Symphony under Zdenek Macal gave a moving performance of this Bernstein classic several seasons ago.) His only film score (for "On the Waterfront") should have won an Academy Award.
It was as a conductor that Bernstein will be best remembered and deservedly so. Just as Arturo Toscanini redefined the image of the modern conductor in the first half of the 20th century, Bernstein embodied all that a conductor could be in the second half of the century. He was the first American to attain "stardom" on the world's symphonic and operatic podiums. His long relationship with the New York Philharmonic proved to be historic. Except for a period during the 1930's when Toscanini was music director, the New York ensemble was always considered to be second best when compared to the great orchestras in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. When Bernstein took over the orchestra, he brought a new energy and dynamism to the group's music making. He also brought an adventurous, wide ranging repertoire. Over night the New York Philharmonic began sounding like a great orchestra. Later Bernstein had a musically productive relationship with the great Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The combination of the conductor's intensity and the venerable orchestra's mellow, schmaltzy sound produced performances of great warmth and fervor. In the opera pit Bernstein made history with Maria Callas at La Scala in Cherubini's "Medea" and Bellini's "La Sonnambula." At the Met he was a surprisingly fiery advocate for Verdi ("Falstaff") and Mascagni ("Cavalleria Rusticana"). Bernstein's recording of Bizet's "Carmen (with Marilyn Horne in the title role) - based upon the 1972 Met production - is one of the greatest ever made. His Vienna State Opera production of Beethoven's "Fidelio" was one of the most eloquent, moving performances I have ever heard.
Bernstein was single handedly responsible for bringing the music of Gustav Mahler into the standard symphonic repertoire. During the centenary of the composer's birth in 1960, Bernstein launched a crusade on behalf of Mahler's music. By sheer force of his personality and his passionately committed performances, Bernstein brought this music to a wide audience. Conductor after conductor followed his lead and today Mahler's symphonies are basic orchestral staples. Later he would do similar work on behalf of the symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, which were rarely played outside of the composer's native country. Mahler and Nielsen figure prominently in Bernstein's recorded legacy. Of particular note is his intensely emotional performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. His strongly characterized Haydn and Mozart symphony recordings with the New York Philharmonic are classics. Has anyone made more idiomatic recordings of the music of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin? Bernstein's eloquent readings of the symphonies of Sibelius set a new standard for the Finnish composer's music. He also recorded many of his own scores. Of his three recordings of the "Jeremiah" Symphony, the first (with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the velvet voiced mezzo-soprano Nan Merriman) is a deeply felt, impassioned performance.
Bernstein's greatest contribution to the musical world may have been his work as an educator. In the early 1950's he eagerly embraced the then new medium of television. First with a series of lecture concerts on the pioneering series "Omnibus", followed by the "New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts" and "Leonard Bernstein presents …" Bernstein became a fixture on network television. His programs were always interesting and fascinating. His subject matter was wide ranging (from Beethoven's sketchbook to Italian opera to the influence of jazz on serious music and many areas in between). Bernstein's urbane commentaries were filled with references to popular culture and contemporary art. His enthusiasm and eagerness to share his insights engaged tens of thousands of young people in appreciation of great music. (This writer was one of them.) The Young People's Concerts have just been issued on DVD and will enthrall a new generation.
Three of the musicians who played under Bernstein in the New York Philharmonic were inspired by him to become conductors. Trumpeter Gerard Schwartz is music director of the Seattle Symphony. Former violinist David Zinman holds directorships in Zurich and Aspen. Also in that violin section was Carlos Piantini who did remarkable work in organizing the orchestra at Miami's Florida International University. Piantini continues to be active as a conductor in Latin America. Bernstein regularly gave conducting classes at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts and at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Conductor's Institute. Among his former students and assistants were Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta, Edo de Waart, Alain Lombard, and John Mauceri.
Bernstein's continuing influence has been strongly felt in South Florida's musical life; nowhere more strongly than at the New World Symphony. The orchestra's artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas is a Bernstein protégé. (Tilson Thomas visited Bernstein two days before his death and is one of the executors of the Bernstein Estate.) Tilson Thomas's performances of Mahler's symphonies have the same feverish intensity as Bernstein's. Like Bernstein, Tilson Thomas is a fervent advocate of American composers. (Bernstein actually conducted a New World Symphony rehearsal during one of the orchestra's early seasons). The orchestra's former resident conductor Leif Bjaland (now music director of Sarasota's Florida West Coast Symphony) studied with and shared the podium with Bernstein at an American Symphony Orchestra League Conductor's Seminar. The Florida Philharmonic's former resident conductor Duilio Dobrin (who led many excellent concerts here over seven seasons) was a Bernstein student at Tanglewood.
The world could use another Leonard Bernstein. No one has equaled his Young People's Concerts. His ability to inspire artists and his contribution to America's musical life were unique. Through his recordings and videos and the work of his protégés, Bernstein's legacy will continue to impact the musical world for years to come.