Leonard vs. Lenny: An American Tragedy

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The air was hot and humid the night of September 8, 1971, when the premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Mass inaugurated Washington's Kennedy Center. The audience sweltered in its black-tie formality; on the stage, however, the performers cavorted in jeans, tie-dye and whatever else constituted the with-it getup of the day. At the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday of last week, when John Mauceri led assembled forces in a half-hour's worth of excerpts from Bernstein's score, the air was almost as stifling as I remembered it in Washington. This time the performers onstage had the formal getup (the orchestra minus jackets, however, in deference to the temperature-humidity index), while the crowd out front sported the bare minimum.

After that terrible night in Washington, I resolved to do everything in my power never to hear that work again, partial or complete, and I had been successful in the intervening 27 years until last week. I looked up my review (in New York magazine): I had found both the work, and the enterprise that had considered it worthy to represent this nation's cultural eminence, “a sick joke.” After hearing Mauceri's undeniably eloquent performance of “Celebrations,” a suite of his own fashioning from the two-hour total work, I feel no need to recant.

The schizophrenia that marked Bernstein's life as a public musician (and, of course, his private life as well) now rubs off on anyone trying to evaluate the components of his stature. The extent of that stature is, of course, beyond challenge; it stretches no point to proclaim Bernstein the master inventor, both as performer and as evangelist, of classical-music consumption in our time. The problems become insurmountable, however, when we deal with the part of his legacy that he so desperately and so unsuccessfully wanted the world most to adore, his achievement as a serious composer. On his worktable the struggle raged between Leonard and Lenny: Leonard, the self-anointed inheritor of the steaming genius of the gods Beethoven and Mahler; Lenny, the preternaturally gifted eternal kid. 1944 – the year following Leonard's famous coast-to-coast radio debut, stepping in for the ailing Bruno Walter to conduct the New York Philharmonic – was the year of Lenny's On the Town, the Broadway musical so crammed with invention and exuberance that the disc on my shelf seems to crackle by itself. That glorious contrivance, however, brought down the wrath of the father figure Serge Koussevitzky, who demanded in so many words that Leonard divorce himself from Lenny.

Thus the schizophrenia took shape. Lenny triumphed mightily on Broadway; Leonard also fared not-too-badly with the Jeremiah Symphony. Eventually, the one cast some kind of curse on the other. Leonard's later big concert pieces – Age of Anxiety, the Serenade, the awful Kaddish – tended to crumble into trivialities, as if the notorious Lenny was delivering double whammies from the wings. Later on, the curse seemed to reverse itself as well; when Lenny returned to West Side Story, to conduct the hyped-to-the-bazooty recording for Deutsche Grammophon, with the roles blatantly miscast and the orchestra imagining itself on Valhalla, you began to suspect the malicious presence of Leonard nearby, delivering all the wrong cues.

Mass was the showdown piece, pretentious, slick, monstrously dull; it destroyed them both. Gone were the wisdom of the former Leonard and the infectious exuberance of the erstwhile Lenny; at 53 they had become one old man trying pathetically to pass for kid, abetted by his and Stephen Schwartz's sickening text – a handbook on Radical Chic, I proclaimed at the time, as if rewritten by the editors of My Weekly Reader. (On his TV shows, Bernstein was fond of using the word groovy, and it hurt my teeth every time.) Nothing worked after that; 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Bicentennial musical, ended up the greatest failure of his career, its ranking later challenged by the opera A Quiet Place, which even had the chutzpah to absorb, and then destroy, the delightful earlier Trouble in Tahiti, with which, back in 1952, both Leonard and Lenny had triumphed hand in hand.

Now there are anniversaries to celebrate, Leonard/Lenny at 80 and George at 100. Gershwin's Piano Concerto filled out last week's Bowl program, which was proper; Peter Donohoe's playing was clean and urgent, and carried the music past the bumps. In this work, too, the level of contrivance is sometimes difficult to swallow; Prokofiev's statement, quoted in the program, is exactly right: The concerto is nothing but a string of 32-bar phrases. They are separate and unrelated; nothing drives any part of the music in a logical progression toward the next part. But dammit, the music is so beautiful, so fresh, so exuberant that we move with it, and are moved; that should be enough. The blues tune midway in the slow movement should drive anyone to tears just thinking about it. Little matter, even, that the tune ultimately dissolves in embarrassing hysterics; George, by then, has earned the right.

Two nights before, Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra ended their week here with a Mozart program: the garrulous 34th Symphony (enhanced with a minuet Mozart composed shortly afterward, which fitted nicely), and the Requiem, for which mortal words always come with difficulty. The vocal forces were locally recruited: the Master Chorale (which also sang in the Bernstein) and an exceptionally well-matched vocal quartet that included the well-known Paula Rasmussen and three newcomers, soprano Cynthia Lawrence, tenor Gordon Getz, and an extraordinary British bass, Peter Rose, whose “Tuba mirum” rang through the vastness of the Bowl like the Day of Judgment itself. It was a wonderful, eloquent performance, received by the audience with a well-mannered silence which gave assurance that the wonders of this music fell upon sympathetic ears. I'm never sure, of course; when the almost-silent orchestra and chorus hit upon the mystical sforzandos that lead from the “Confutatis” into the “Lacrimosa,” I choke up, and invariably ask myself whether the human race deserves such music.

Over coffee, Fischer wanted to talk about his week in Los Angeles. Armed with a copy of Hollywood Haven, Cornelius Schnauber's excellent counterpart to those Hollywood star maps, and a lot more accurate, he had spent much of it visiting the homes of the extraordinary arts figures who lived and worked here during the Nazi years and World War II. Why, Fischer wondered, had the city done so little to celebrate this group of distinguished visitors? Why were there no commemorative plaques at the home of Arnold Schoenberg (116 N. Rockingham Ave. in Brentwood), or, in Beverly Hills, Igor Stravinsky (1260 Wetherly Drive), Bruno Walter (608 Bedford Drive) or George Gershwin (1019 Roxbury Drive)? Sure, there's a plaque on the Thomas Mann house (1550 San Remo Drive, Pacific Palisades), but it was placed there by the German government. Compare this with, say, Vienna, where you can't walk down many streets without passing some former home of Beethoven or Mozart, its history kept alive and well-polished by a bronze plaque.

It was a question worth asking. The only answer is: Be glad the houses still exist; rather than honoring its past, standard Los Angeles procedure is to convert its historic real estate into condos. The answer didn't satisfy Mr. Fischer – nor me, for that matter.

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