I was asked to dig up the following, a fifteen-year-old posting from the Well, some days after the death of Leonard Bernstein. There’s a bit of curious posthistory about it, but that can wait. Reproduced here exactly as it first appeared, except I can’t reproduce the lazy pace of a 2400bps ascii terminal for you. The user ID ‘mandel’ was the late Tom Mandel, with whom I had a lengthy online sparring relationship. It lasted until I finally met him, on the day he died.
# 15: (mtheo) Thu, Oct 25, ‘90 (00:25) 48 lines
I pretty much agree with <mandel> on Bernstein’s conducting; he was so intent on injecting as much of himself as possible into the music that the composer was often left behind. Yet his extraordinary passion and vitality could sweep aside such objections. Zubin Mehta conducts with the same intensity – even conviction; but Mehta’s unremitting vulgarity makes mincemeat of the composer (except, of course, for those as vulgar as himself), while Bernstein’s intensity *demands* to be dealt with.
Many times I tried to dismiss Bernstein as a conductor, but was always given pause by this: just try to name another significant twentieth-century composer who achieved comparable stature as a conductor. There is only one, and that is Gustav Mahler.
For Mahler, of course, Bernstein had quite an affinity – he could even be said to be responsible for the extraordinary surge of interest in Mahler over the last thirty years or so. Last week, on one of the <ahem> “classical” radio stations, I heard Bernstein’s recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. Now, the Vienna, because of its peculiar polity, is a *stringent* conservator of the traditions of European orchestral playing (conducting the Vienna is only by invitation of the players themselves), and they *loved* Bernstein, just as they had loved Mahler himself.
So here was this just plain impossible madman, tackling one of the just plain impossible scores, with a self-governing orchestra known for being impossibly conservative (right down to sticking with the F horns when everyone else long ago defected to the doubles). Sure enough, the interpretation was vastly, impossibly overdone. It was also splendid – thrilling. I was following the score, and Bernstein was taking license all right; license invited by Mahler’s own directions in the score. And the last eight pages, which have to be among the most impossible to bring off in the whole literature, Bernstein managed to nail, negotiating all the wild lurches as though he were nonchalantly jumping over the moon.
His astonishing energy and massive appetites may have been embarrassing at times, but they bear witness to his having been one of the few fully developed personalities of our time. Who could not forgive him his often inane politics and midlife crises, when he had the audacity to live his own life and no one else’s? I think a fitting epitaph would be a single word, one of his favorites: joy.