Leonard Bernstein at 70
Tanglewood, August 25-28
There is an irony to the career of Leonard Bernstein, celebrated this past weekend with a whole series of concerts and parties at the Tanglewood Music Center, where that career began.
By the end of Thursday night’s gala multi-starred celebration, it was obvious what an impact “Lenny” (as everyone calls him) has had in every area of music, from conducting the works of Copeland, Stravinski and Mahler to his own writing for the classical halls, the Hollywood screen, the Broadway stage.
There is so much wonderful material to draw on – songs from his early broadway shows, On the Town and Wonderful Town; his ballet collaboration with Jerome Robbins, Fancy Free; his film score for On the Waterfront: and of course, the unforgettable melodies of West Side Story and Candide.
“Poor Lenny, ten gifts too many,” was the sad refrain of the lyrics specially penned for the evening by collaborator and friend Stephen Sondheim.
And yet, this is the man who once criticized Gershwin as being merely a pop composer whose music would not dwell among the immortals. Bernstein wants very much to be remembered as a serious classical composer. But of the 36 works performed over the course of the weekend, only four were from among his classical writings – and all four were choral works or songs, including the jazzy Mass. His heavier pieces, such as his Age of Anxiety Symphony, were passed over completely.
So what? Let’s let Lenny and his psychiatrist and the historians sort it out. Thursday night, there was no doubt about how his contemporaries feel about him.
One after another, the people he has touched took the stage to thank their friend and mentor with a memory, a joke, and a gift of song – a Who’s Who of 20th century music, from cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch, older than Lenny himself, to the 16-year-old Japanese wunderkind violinist, Midori; more than 50 singers, conductors, composers and musicians.
“I was at the Nureyev birthday celebration in New York last year,” said one tuxedoed gentleman who had laid out $5,000 for top tickets for the week, “”and it was nothing like this. No one else has this depth of talent to draw on. These aren’t just performers he’s worked with – these are all his friends.”
Or, as Greek minister of culture Melina Mercouri put it, one of dozens of world figures sending greetings to the birthday boy: “To say, bless you? You were born blessed.”