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Collection Leonard Bernstein

Section 5

Bernstein's relative disillusionment might have signaled the relative derailment of his career. Nothing of the kind occurred. Rather, his career was rerouted in the only possible direction: Europe. In particular, Vienna—the city of Beethoven and Mahler—exerted an ineluctable pull. In Vienna, he led Falstaff, Der Rosenkavalier, Fidelio, and his own A Quiet Place. The Vienna Philharmonic supplanted the New York Philharmonic as the orchestra with which he most often toured and recorded. And he was lionized in Vienna as Americans—or Viennese—would never have revered one of their own.

Visiting the Soviet Union in 1959 with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein had discovered America in Russia and Russia in America. At a Moscow concert beamed to the United States, he juxtaposed Copland and Shostakovich and discovered a common heroism, humor, and candor. A decade later, in Vienna, Bernstein no longer championed America. Bernstein the composer and public educator dropped from view. On television, he turned up on a different kind of program: not sui generis Omnibus specials, Young People's Concerts, or Norton Lectures, but symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler—the same routine Great Performances associated with Karajan.

Bernstein's new identity was international. All his major concerts were videotaped or filmed. Jetting between Vienna, London, Tel Aviv, Rome, New York, he trailed a cornucopia of CDs, cassettes, souvenir books, and coffee mugs. The more ubiquitous he became, the more elusive became the American Lenny of yesteryear. He increasingly acquired a reputation for eccentricity.

The retrenchment to Great Performer worked for Bernstein because he happened to retrench into a great conductor. Perhaps the cradling traditions of the Vienna Philharmonic and its Musikverein taught and inspired him as the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center had not. Perhaps he had merely needed to grow older, or to concentrate his talents more narrowly. In any event, his later recordings thrive on a Furtwänglerian mastery of long-range harmonic tension and release—an interpretative largesse hardly apparent in the Young People's Concerts of the sixties.

Bernstein never abandoned his pedagogic gift. He continued to teach young musicians in Fontainebleau, Sapporo, Schleswig-Holstein, and Tanglewood. But, aside from sometimes introducing his own television performances, he stopped teaching laymen and their offspring. He last appeared at a Lincoln Center children's event on March 14, 1984—the sixtieth anniversary celebration of the New York Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts. He conducted but, incongruously, did not speak. A member of the Philharmonic's staff confided afterward that, since Bernstein was "crazy," he could not be trusted to address an audience of children. "We would have no control over what he might say."

Another bizarre Bernstein occasion was a sublime performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall in April 1987—a concert confused by its denouement. Lauren Bacall stepped to a microphone to present Bernstein with the "Albert Schweitzer Music Award." The popping flashbulbs of this rude ceremony epitomized the artist upstaged by his own celebrity.

The teachings of Leonard Bernstein chart a process of disengagement from the America which shaped him, and in which he had placed great confidence. They help to explain, I think, why the memorial concerts held in New York in the wake of Bernstein's death seemed so charged with the bewilderment of personal loss. Most of the mourners could not have known Bernstein the man. What they sensed, however subliminally, were the damaged hopes of this most American of classical musicians.

(Article reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books External. Copyright © 1993 NYREV, Inc.)