August 29, 2018

Thus Spake Bernstein

It's no exaggeration to say that Leonard Bernstein was, at least in part, responsible for my love of classical music. His Young People's Concerts, which aired on CBS from 1958 to 1972, were mostly before my conscious time, but I remember seeing enough of them in the last few years to be really interested. My first live trip to a classical music concert was a similar Young People's Concert done by what was then called the Minneapolis Symphony (which has since then taken on the far more pedestrian moniker Minnesota Orchestra). Anyway, when you're being taught something by someone with a real passion for it, at least some of that passion is bound to rub off.

I have mixed feelings for Bernstein; starting with Tom Wolfe's infamous Radical Chic, which described in brutal, relentless detail the utter pomposity of the wealthy Bernsteins, in their Park Avenue apartment, hosting an awareness fundraiser for the Black Panthers. It's almost impossible to understand how anyone could take Bernstein seriously after that excoriating portrait, and then you combine it with Bernstein's increasingly flamboyant, almost campy lifestyle in his later years (I particularly remember his capes and other outrageous clothes), emoting on the podium, drinking heavily and often behaving crassly in public—well, the man was at times virtually a parody of himself. And again, one wonders, how can anyone take Lenny seriously?

Then you watch one of those concerts—TCM had five of them on a few weeks ago, in honor of Bernstein's 100th birthday, and almost all of them are on YouTube—, you listen to how the man teaches, how he explains music to grade school children—not really children, but, as he called them, young people. I'm no musicologist, but I do know a fair bit about music, and yet watching some of these programs I find myself scrambling to keep up with this thought process. It's deep, profound, often engaging with ideas and topics such as philosophy in a quest to explain the relationship between music and life. Bernstein never talks down to his audience (either the young people in the concert hall, or those watching on television), he never condescends or patronizes, he always interjects enough topical language and music to let them know that he understands where it's at, and he presents all this as someone who finds the subject matter quite exciting, and wants his audience to share in that thrill. And, from the expressions on their faces, some of them do. Granted, they've been prepped for it by their music teacher in school (remember when they had music appreciation classes?), but there's really nothing that prepares anyone, young or old, from Lenny at full wattage.

Watch this program in which he explains Richard Strauss's famous piece, Thus Spake Zarathustra, better known as the theme to 2001. By the time it's over, you'll know more about Nietzsche's philosophy than you ever thought possible, as well as an absolutely stunning demonstration of how Strauss's music depicts the themes in Nietzsche's work. Bernstein expects his audience to be able to follow this, expects that grade school students can comprehend complex themes and ideas, and to relate them to the meaning of life. I found this as thrilling as Bernstein must have.

For all that Bernstein accomplished, the conducting and the compositions and the writing, I think his lasting influence will be as a teacher. Not a teacher of other musicians, although he mentored a good many of them. No, it's as a teacher who tried to enrich the lives of his students just a little bit, to make them look at life in a different way, perhaps introduce them to something they hadn't considered before. Remember how on Saturday Judith Crist wrote about how one of the functions of a critic was to teach readers to demand more, to put a value on the time that they spend watching a movie and then expect that movie to be worth that time? To stimulate a response? That's what Bernstein does in these programs, and in other cases, and there's nobody better at it them him. You know how I've written about how a program like Alistair Cooke's America taught me more than my high school civics class? Never mind music appreciation; I can guarantee this program should have been shown in my college philosophy class.

So can we reconcile the two Bernsteins, the teacher and the tramp, the passionate musician and the inviter of ridicule? Should we even try? This is, I think, one of those cases where I'm going to have to agree to disagree with myself, for as hard as it may be to take Lenny seriously, when Leonard Bernstein talks about music, people listen. Am I a nerd for calling this kind of show "thrilling"? Perhaps, but it's so worth the ride. TV  

1 comment:

  1. Thought provoking article about the genius who was also a contradiction...and a perfect tie-in to your Judith Crist article, also thought provoking and sadly, archaic for today's view of TV.


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