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So I Keep Hearing

Classical music critic 1992-2008

May I presume? Leonard Bernstein, whose anniversaries we widely and wisely celebrate this year, made his first public noise — that famous New York Philharmonic broadcast — in November 1943. Merely one year later, almost to the day, I too generated a kind of noise: my first published music review, in the Boston Herald on Thanksgiving Day, 1944. That first day may have been a memorable one in the Bernstein family, but I can match that. We had a hard time on Shailer Street in Brookline that morning, trying to get my mom back into the kitchen and away from the telephone, phoning the mishpocheh with the news. Boy oh boy, there was no more pre-med for me after that.

I earned three dollars for that review, of a Boston Symphony Youth concert. The day I lost my job here at the Weekly I took that old clip out of its box; it wasn’t so bad. That year, while I was finishing up at Harvard and sitting in on lectures by the spellbinding music prof G. Wallace Woodworth, any music I was asked to review I usually learned in the trolley car on the way to the concert. Even so, “Woody” saw something in me and worked on me to change my life. Some of the results are in the following article.

My 16 years at the Weekly were the time of the emergence of Los Angeles as the major musical force in this country — the “Continental Shift,” as The New York Times expressed it. The Weekly gave me the space I needed to describe and celebrate this hugely important event, and even to get some of it into a fairly successful book (So I’ve Heard, a title I’d been hoarding for about 20 years). The event continues; so, in my own space (at www.soiveheard.com), do I.

 

From “The Self-Importance of Being Lenny,” by Alan Rich, November 7, 1997

Bernstein’s achievement lies in his bridge-building, and his structural elements were more often words than music. Winnow out the nonsense in some of his TV stuff that sold the notion of music’s greatness to audiences young and old, and you still find the spirit of a man desperately in love with two things — the essence of music itself, and the thrill in being able to put that essence into words and then to shout it from the rooftops. (I won’t deny that my own work affords me the same thrill; I cannot, in fact, imagine anyone going into writing about music for any other reason.)

The nature of his legacy remains to be determined. Good-looking boys from Boston (and perhaps from Chippewa Falls as well) now make their debuts every day in the week; the music that Bernstein “discovered” — Ives alongside Mahler — now figures in the active repertory of most orchestras. The New York Philharmonic had been playing Mahler symphonies since the 1920s; the Bernstein triumph is not that he played them first but that he made them matter. He lived with one hand on the spotlight switch, and had the media chops to determine on his own terms the events worth making significant. The new pile of Bernstein discs, like the previous ones and others sure to come, doesn’t do very much to reconstruct the image of the extraordinary figure on the podium; for that you would have to have been there. But they are a reminder that once, he was a presence among us, that he mattered, and still does.