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Lenny, Then and Now

March 17, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

Like most teenagers, I was distressingly opinionated and unwilling to bend when it came to my judgments concerning most artistic matters. For example, I was particularly sniffy when it came to the accomplishments -- or not -- of Leonard Bernstein. It didn't matter whether I was discussing his music (classical or otherwise) or his conducting. To a young purist like myself, Bernstein's apparent need to have one foot on Broadway and the other in the concert hall seemed all wrong, a violation of carefully drawn boundaries.

And what was up with all those histrionics while he was conducting? In this realm, it seemed as if he'd singlehandedly invented the term "over the top" long before it became part of the common discourse. Excess, actually, appeared to be his natural realm, and everything he did seemed to lack authenticity since it was tainted by all the boundary crossing and theatrics he indulged in. Why didn't he just make up his mind and choose one place or the other?

Perhaps then, at least one of his works would have a necessary purity and completeness. And what about standing still while conducting for a change? Perhaps then the music would predominate and not its interpreter.

Doubtless, I was a true juvenile -- in the worst sense of that word -- willing to shoot my mouth off in any number of uninformed ways. Luckily for me, I was soon forced to revise my opinion.

Early in my 20s, I saw spirited productions of Bernstein's pre-West Side Story musicals,On the Town and Wonderful Town, and the scales fell off my eyes. I realized what he'd been after all along -- that the majority of his works in any medium were about redefining the nature of dance and dance rhythms (Stravinsky taught him this). The key was movement, and it gave his work in every area a unifying thread. And so I did a complete about-face.

The depth and breadth of Bernstein's achievement seemed astonishing to me: What other composer (only George Gershwin got as close) had changed the course of the Broadway musical while also composing classical works of quality and originality (to say nothing of his ballet music, his groundbreaking score for the film On the Waterfront and his early chamber opera Trouble in Tahiti), while at the same time conducting almost all of the great orchestras in the world? If all that flamboyance came along with so much energy and genius, so be it.

A beautiful new broadly proportioned coffee-table book, titled Leonard Bernstein at Work: His Final Years, 1984-1990, reminds us, through incisive pictures and text, of both the flare and the creativity of this very nearly indefinable artist. The photos are by Steve J. Sherman; the artist interviews are by Robert Sherman; and the publisher is Amadeus Press, an imprint of the ever-enterprising Hal Leonard Corporation. There are also pieces by Lauren Bacall and Bernstein's daughter, Jamie, as well as remembrances of the master by colleagues, friends and family.

'The Most Alive Person'

Each chapter -- and thus, each set of photos -- is pegged to a specific event, whether it's a recording session for West Side Story in 1984 or a performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony with the New York Philharmonic a year later. There are shots of Bernstein in action and at rest, fooling around and being serious, alone or in groups, all rendered in rich black and white. They attest to the energy and the excess of this vital man. As violinist Gidon Kremer is quoted as saying: "Lenny was the most alive person I've ever worked with." This book is a testament to that quality.

The Hal Leonard Organization has offered up several other Bernstein publications to revel in -- or to help supplement Steve Sherman's photos. The most substantial is a memoir by Jack Gottlieb, a composer himself, called Working With Bernstein (Amadeus is again the publisher). It's an affectionate, but warts-and-all portrait of Lenny, loaded with inside information compiled by a man who was the maestro's assistant for many years. Gottlieb also provides interpretations of many Bernstein works that can only increase any admirer's awe at what went into creating them.

In addition, Limelight Editions has started a new series called "Music on Films," and the first entry is West Side Story. The author of this compact little study, which is also compactly produced, is Barry Monush, who compares the stage version to the movie, and analyzes the vast influence the film has had on countless viewers and the culture at large.

And any true West Side Story fan won't want to be without Elizabeth A. Wells' study West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, published by the always adventurous (especially when it comes to musical theater) Scarecrow Press. Wells, an associate professor and head of the music department at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, provides lots of history about how the musical was put together, with eyewitness accounts provided by Bernstein and librettist Arthur Laurents. Once she creates this base, each of her chapters looks at the work through the lens of a different cultural trend, whether it's juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, Hispanic life in New York or the influence of feminism.

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