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Five anniversaries: Looking back on Bernstein
How do you approach the mythos and music of such a prolific composer? As his 100th birthday nears, the answer remains a work in progress
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, April 7, 2018 – Page R5

In celebrating Leonard Bernstein's centenary this year it's reasonable to ask: Exactly which Leonard Bernstein? Has anyone had more music lives?

He was the consummate insider with serious New York fame, starting in 1958 with the start of his celebrity stint as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. A Broadway hit-maker with West Side Story, he was famous as a classical composer, as an accomplished pianist and maker of movie soundtracks starting with On the Waterfront. He lectured, hosted TV shows and saw himself as an actor.

Yet there really is no problem here because there's really no need for the question in the first place.

Leonard Bernstein was obviously Leonard Bernstein in whatever he did. Outsiders knew that instantly. He knew himself as the sum of all his own parts. Because for all his complications and contradictions - starting with adoring his wife while leading an out gay life - the truth is there was nothing mystifying about him. This alone mystified a lot of Europeans who grumpily distrusted such an unabashed American romping so happily through the sombre mists of their sacred musical history.

Conductors were godlike, no?

They were meant to mystify.

Bernstein was open in that very brash way other American geniuses - Bill Gates or Walt Disney or Louis Armstrong or the Wizard of Oz - were or are open. He seduced us not because of his secrets but by how easily, even willingly, he gave those secrets away.

And by the way, he was entirely spontaneous in this, as so many geniuses can be. If he was lusty in private he showed it, shockingly at times. If he wanted to lift you joy-headed out of your seat at a concert, he always had the orchestra to do it, shockingly marvellous too at times.

Bernstein's most profound talent was to know just how much his audiences were after these revelations, before they themselves knew it.

"Everyone thinks they know what they mean by 'classical' music," the maestro commented in his magisterial, tobacco-cured baritone during one of his Young People's Concerts in the later fifties on CBS. "But in fact we use the word because we can't think of a better one," he added.

Ahhh. You can still hear the audience collectively relax on the DVDs of the telecast. Kids feel a little less clueless: Their parents feel great. The smarty cat was out of the bag, their confusion gone with it. "You understand, this was really an adult concert done for a children's audience," says Mervon Mehta, head of the Royal Conservatory's performing-arts program in Toronto.

In most Bernstein bios, the Young People's Concerts on CBS are viewed as add-ons to an already overstuffed résumé. In fact they are among Bernstein's more far-sighted ventures, winning him Grammys and a vast, untapped audience worldwide - his voice was dubbed into various languages - for classical music.

Mehta - who has the Bernstein lectures on DVD - is heavily invested in the Bernstein anniversary and its namesake's ability to fill seats. (Bernstein ticketselling credentials have rarely been equaled. His conducting of Maria Callas in Cherubini's Medea in 1953 helped keep alive warravaged Milan's La Scala.)

Five events in Toronto alone over the next few weeks begin with Bernstein@100, at the Conservatory's Koerner Hall on April 6 with narration by Jamie Bernstein, the conductor's daughter, in a concert of her father's music with Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, German pianist Sebastian Knauer and the Conservatory's own ARC Ensemble.

On April 20, Johannes Debus conducts the Royal Conservatory Orchestra, also at Koerner Hall, performing Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, along with work by Berlioz and Poulenc. On April 27, the Amici Chamber Ensemble marks its 30th anniversary by programming a variety of shorter Bernstein pieces - such as I Can Cook Too from On the Town in a concert opened by Ottorino Respighi's Il tramonto, for voice and string quartet, and Erno Dohnanyi's Sextet in C Major, Op 37.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, for its part in the centenary - Bernstein was born Aug. 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Mass., and died in 1990 - offers a pair of performances of the operetta Candide, April 26 and 28 at Roy Thomson Hall, conducted by Bramwell Tovey. Bernstein began work on Candide in 1953 with Lillian Hellman at a time when they both found themselves in the shadow of the communist witch hunt by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). They were attracted to the satirical potential found in Voltaire's original picaresque novella. Coincidentally, Tovey's own career took off as the last-minute substitute conductor for the opening night of the London Symphony Orchestra's 1986 Leonard Bernstein Festival. Bernstein himself was in the audience, and invited Tovey over to the Tanglewood Music Festival that summer.

The Royal Conservatory and TSO offerings can't help but bolster sales of a number of doorstopper-sized multiple-CD box sets that have been released by Sony and Deutsche Grammophon (DG) and Decca in recent months. Costs of the sets will of course vary. The recent Grammywinning Leonard Bernstein: The Composer, for instance, is listed at $152.41. The cost for everything on DG/Decca is "in the $595 range," a sales rep tells me.

Also likely to benefit from such Bernstein-mania is Famous Father Girl, daughter Jamie Bernstein's gossipy memoir, just published, entirely reflective in its way of the Bernstein mythology, of unsettling undercurrents beneath a brilliant surface.

In its almost breathless rush from person to place, Famous Father Girl offers a snapshot survey of a Who's Who of New York and Hollywood celebrity as Jamie tries to make it on her own on one coast or another as a musician and/or actress, two areas excelled in by her mother, the Chilean-born Felicia Montealegre.

Here's Carly Simon one afternoon, or Woody Allen one evening, fleeing the weirdness of a Bernstein family dinner "with his new girlfriend, Mia Farrow."

But then here's "Daddy," as she calls "LB," her prankster, butt-kicking father, pulling his "old trick" after one particular dinner as his daughter is leaving, of "kissing me fully on the lips then pushing his tongue into my mouth," she writes.

"It has nothing to do with his being gay, but with his random, all-embracing pansexuality," she clarifies for me in a later phone call. "He did it to everybody."

Bernstein's bisexuality was understood to those who knew him even casually in the thirties and forties - he was swooned over by Aaron Copland, the dean of American composers - but it was kept a professional secret while he was alive and making a lot of money for a lot of different big companies.

Montealegre loved him anyway. "You are a homosexual and may never change," she wrote in a 1952 letter to him. "Let's try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like."

Bernstein, likewise crazy about Felicia, realized nevertheless that he'd never be able not to notice a beautiful boy walking by. What shocked friends and colleagues most, though, was the aggressiveness of his sexual needs. A friend of mine remembers seeing him lasciviously necking with a boy on Ninth Avenue in New York one day.

"How shocking, especially for someone so famous," the friend says.

Politics, like sex, was always in the air too. Jamie Bernstein still recoils just thinking about Tom Wolfe's cheeky "Radical Chic" essay, That Party at Lenny's, that mocked her parents for being upper-crust New Yorkers dabbling socially over finger food with members of the radical Black Panthers. ("He'd become a veritable tiger,'" Wolfe writes of Bernstein, who's now "roaring.") "My parents were now condemned and mocked in the press," she wrote recently in the Huffington Post. "Their own friends condemned them for 'siding' with the Panthers."

"You see, my father was a celebrity and it became all about his being a celebrity," Jamie Bernstein told me on the phone a few days ago. "That event was my mother's event. My father had nothing to do with it. It got hijacked, though, by his celebrity."

Family unity never faltered when it came to taking sides.

And when Leonard Bernstein began bravely reviving Gustav Mahler in Vienna in the 1970s - a Jew conducting the music of another Jew, albeit one who became a Christian convert, with an orchestra with a few former Nazis in it - "it kind of reunited us," says Jamie Bernstein.

"We didn't go there ourselves.

He kept telling us about it. He felt that music gave him a chance to elevate himself."

Associated Graphic

With his ever-present cigarette in hand, former New York Philharmonic conductor and legendary film composer Leonard Bernstein pauses during a conference in Washington in 1971.


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