Thursday, October 14, 2010

Leonard Bernstein, 1917-1989

Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas in Danbury, Conn., 1974. I was there, too, though you can't see me in this picture.

Leonard Bernstein died twenty years ago today, Oct. 14. Bernstein's son Alexander wrote this tribute to commemorate the anniversary. The link was sent to me by Elliot Tomaeno of, a website designed, in Elliot's words, "specifically designed to help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender professionals connect with other LGBT professionals." Thanks, Elliot. Always glad to help.

I appreciated Bernstein more as a conductor than as a composer. (West Side Story is a great score, but oh, it's a bad movie.) I particularly value his recordings of Nielsen, which I still have on vinyl. For all of his public exposure, however, I saw his conduct only once, at the Danbury, Conn., State Fair Grounds in 1974, at a concert celebrating the Ives centenary. I was sixteen years old. Bernstein led the American Symphony Orchestra (I think), in Ives's Second Symphony. Unfortunately, he was not at his best that night. It was a pretty ragged performance, as I recall, and I don’t think it was the musicians' fault, since Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the second half of the program, and for him, they were spot on. Lenny seemed more interested in dancing round the podium than in actually leading the orchestra. At one point, he actually jumped into the air. The motion seemed particularly inappropriate, since nothing much seemed to be happening in the score at the moment. The spectacle left rather a sour taste in my mouth.

But everyone is entitled to an off night, I suppose, and Bernstein's recordings of Ives's music are quite fine. Elliott Carter also has expressed approval of Bernstein's recording of his (Carter's) Concerto for Orchestra, a score he (Bernstein) did not particularly like, or so I understand. A pity, since it's a great piece of music. Perhaps if he had gone back to it, rather than leaving it to Boulez, he might have developed a greater appreciation for it.

Today, the Danbury Fair Grounds are a shopping mall, like every other piece of open land in America.


SusanGG said...

My mother, June Goodman, organized that concert. She made it her mission to bring classical music to Danbury. I just discovered a letter she wrote about the concert to my sister. She was so excited to be celebrating Ives in his home town. There were Ives relatives there - Bigelow, Brewster, Chester and Richard. Dave Brubeck and Aaron Copeland too. Copeland couldn't believe that 7,000 people came to hear an American orchestra with American conductors playing music by an American composer. It was difficult at that time in Danbury to fill 500 seats even for top notch musicians. People attended who had never attended a concert before. My mother wrote....."The hugh American flag floated over the whole thing (stage) and then there was Lenny in a most beautifully tailored suit dancing on the podium, ..... Tilson Thomas conducted the second half, the audience cheered and applauded. There were fireworks in the background and the full moon popped up over the band shell." It was lovely night for her too.

Joe Barron said...

Susan, thank you for sharing your memories.