Leonard Bernstein and the price of transcendence

Leonard Bernstein

1000 words

Depending on what day you ask me, I’m equally as fanatic about sports as I am about music. One of my favorite writers in any subject is Bill Simmons, who writes for ESPN about a variety of things, but if we are to believe his 800-page book on the subject, basketball is his area of greatest expertise. It is in said 800-page book that Simmons discusses the careers of the best players in the history of the game. There are many great observations and anecdotes throughout, but some of the best material is about the great Bill Walton.

Bill Walton was probably the 6th or 7th best center in the history of the NBA (certainly behind Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Olajuwon, O’Neal), but that is almost entirely due to problems with his feet that still plague him to this day. When he was healthy, though, Walton was one of the most gifted players in history, and it is Simmons’ contention that Walton would have been one of the elite players of all-time had his feet not betrayed him (the reasons for this hypothesis are essentially the point of the entire book, which I would encourage anyone who has even a passing interest in basketball to read).

In one of the discussions about Walton, Simmons debates the merits of transcendence versus stable excellence, asking if one would prefer Walton’s incredibly brief peak as an unparalleled dominant force compared to David Robinson’s long-term excellence (Robinson was a talented player, but he never won a title as the main guy on his team, and in fact got utterly crushed by Hakeem Olajuwon during his prime). This, of course, got me thinking about music, although not in quite the same way.

I was really caught up thinking about transcendence and how it’s achieved in music, and the risks inherently associated with the pursuit of it. It’s not easy, and almost by definition there are going to be stumbles along the way. There will likely be moments when you will look foolish. And when you think of looking foolish and making music, one name leaps to mind…

Leonard Bernstein often looked like a dumbass on the podium; if a student were to conduct with his “technique” at a competition or workshop, they would probably get their batons taken away at the very least. Sometimes he would just start dancing. Sometimes he would just shake. Sometimes he would jump. Sometimes he would grab his baton with both hands and swing it like a hammer at one of those carnival strength test games. He will change the lyrics to your song if a wall comes down.

And this is just how he looks…we haven’t even gotten to the havoc he often wreaked on scores. Exaggerated tempi, random rubatos, dynamic adjustments, whatever; if it was on the page, it was in trouble. Maybe Bernstein was arrogant, maybe he was flat-out narcissistic. Maybe the repression of his homosexuality for all those years made him seek Real Housewives-style drama in music. Who knows? I do know one thing: no one is better than Bernstein when it comes to creating transcendent moments.

And that’s where the “is it worth it?” question comes in. Using Simmons’ phraseology: would you rather have a conductor who plays it straight and does everything in his power to execute the score, or would you rather have a conductor like Bernstein, who might make you groan 30 times but will also give you 4 or 5 moments where you let out an orgasmic sigh and rewind a passage several times?

Allow Lenny to make his case a little bit:

Listen to the transition to the recapitulation…there’s no discernible reason to slow down so much. But dammit all if it doesn’t have an intensity to it that you don’t normally hear. And carrying that tempo all the way into the recap is overwhelming in its effect; it is tremendously powerful, if not a remotely accurate representation of the score. Also note the last three notes of the movement, in which Bernstein appears to duel with the (invisible) six-fingered man.

This is about as great a demonstration of Bernstein looking like a total dipshit on the podium as you can find. What doesn’t he do besides light himself on fire? Of course, he also paces the work perfectly and has a huge range of expression. And don’t lose sight of the fact that when he looks his most ridiculous (starting right about the 9:00 minute mark), the band sounds like they’re from Planet Holy Shit, and the Gaudeamus Igitur bit rocks out like no other performance you’ve ever heard. And enjoy the last chord, when Bernstein looks like he gets 2-second food poisoning.

Bernstein’s Mahler is legendary, in part because of its self-indulgent streak, but this excerpt pretty much shows why. It’s Earth-shattering in every way. Listen to how slow Lenny takes the “Auferstehn,” but also listen to how controlled it is. It’s an incredibly spine-tingling moment, and it owes a good bit of its tingle to Bernstein’s constant ability to extract every last drip of drama in a piece.

This is my personal favorite of the bunch. First of all, Rostropovich. But listen to the climax! Around 4:45 or so, but especially from 5:10-6:10, Bernstein never stops ratcheting up the heat, and the band gives it to him. It’s like they’re a hot rod, then they put it in overdrive, then they kick in the nitrous, then the car sprouts wings and flies, then it develops the ability to shoot lasers out of its headlights and destroys a major European city, then it just turns into the God of the Israelites. And Lenny works for every ounce of it; I don’t think you will see better conducting anywhere. It’s beautiful to watch. As an aside, he looks like a million bucks with that beard. Also, Rostropovich.

None of this is to suggest that other conductors cannot achieve transcendent results. But it is to suggest that other conductors can’t touch Lenny in this department. Of course they can’t. No other conductor is willing to do the occasionally asinine shit that Lenny is beloved for. I don’t know what his motives were, nor do I care. All I know is that I’ve listened to the 2-minute or so climax of that Schelomo about 14 times in a row with tears in my eyes and orgasmic sighs resonating in my chest.

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5 thoughts on “Leonard Bernstein and the price of transcendence

  1. I don’t know why Lenny took so much shit for his stage antics. Conducting has so little to do with down-right-left-up. C.Kleiber got pretty “fancy-free” with his baton as well and he’s worshipped like JFK. A wind player friend of mine told me that one of Lennie’s players told him that they ignored Lennie and just followed the CM, otherwise he’d start laughing. I think that’s BS, more likely sour grapes.

    As far as taking liberties with the score, why not? If I want to hear expressionless playing I have plenty of midi files on my HD for that. And that is by no means a criticism of midi, 99 percent of popular music today is sequenced, right? And that would of course be hypocritical since my blog is pretty midi-culous..

  2. Personally, I often find Lenny’s conducting distracting and don’t always see the point in some of his wild gesticulating.  It does have significantly more popular appeal, though, and a lot of young conductors approach conducting that way.  It’s entirely a personal preference, I suspect; one look at my favorite conductors (Otmar Suitner, Kiril Kondrashin, Takashi Asahina, Walter Weller) and you’ll see that they are all varying degrees of the anti-Bernstein (Suitner is especially economical with his gestures…he’s all-business).  What I mean by this post is that none of my favorite conductors, or any other conductors, can reach Bernstein’s peaks.  Bernstein takes risks that no one else does, and when they pay off, they pay off huge.  The catch is that they don’t always pay off, which is how you end up with, for example, his famous recording of Shostakovich 5 (even though he clearly understood Shostakovich well enough…his performance of 6 & 9 with Vienna in his later years is on fire). 
     
    I’d take any of my favorites over Bernstein because they are more consistently rewarding and their approach is much more in tune with my preferences.  But I’m so glad Bernstein is around and has his hands in so many musical pies, because he is capable of showing you things no one else can, even if he occasionally shows you things you’d prefer not to see in the process.

  3. I enjoyed this article a lot. As I get older, I find Bernstein’s conducting eccentricities less irritating. You have done a great job in describing why Bernstein moves people.

  4. Hi Drew,

    Thank you for stopping in. Like many people, Bernstein served as a key part of my introduction to symphonic music, and I loved him when I first heard many of his recordings. Then I began studying conducting, and my love of Bernstein eroded because he deviates from the score so regularly, and that went against my musical sensibilities. But in the last two years or so, when I’ve gone from being a full-time musician and conducting wannabe to a regular dude who likes to write about music, my love for Lenny has been flooding steadily back. I’ve been digging a ton of Bernstein lately, and I’m not stopping.

  5. Pingback: By the popular demand of one: One man’s opinion on Gustavo Dudamel « Everything But The Music

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