In 1966, Leonard Bernstein conducted The Rite of Spring and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 with the London Symphony Orchestra, and just recently that BBC event has been released on DVD for the first time. It’s a fascination—not only for the strong performance, but even more so for the chance to watch “Lenny” in action, close-up. Yes, all conductors have highly personal characteristics, but has there ever been one as theatrical, as showy, as hammy as he was? Or as exciting, as persuasive, as dedicated?
There’s the Lenny problem: Is he for real or is he an act? Do we love him or do we want to kick him in the ass? Is his heart only on his sleeve, or is there another one inside him? And do those of us who grew up with him in all his avatars respond to him the same way as those coming to him for the first time, with no history and perhaps no expectations?
Look at him up there, facing a cadre of highly disciplined, impeccably groomed Englishmen. (Not many women in the LSO in those days.) They watch him closely, of course—is it my fantasy that they watch him as if they were in striking distance of a dangerous tiger? His behavior to them is totally cordial and respectful—in fact, remarkably generous: hands shaken, pats on the shoulder, warm smiles. If he isn’t happy with their playing, you’d never know it.
But have they ever worked with a conductor not only this legendary but this over the top? It’s not just his notorious bouncing up and down. He grins, he grimaces, he thrusts and spasms; the emotional climaxes of the music are reflected on his face—he’s thrilled with excitement one moment, anguished the next. He nods and sways. He sweats. He mouths along with the music. Since he conducts without a score—his musical memory is famous—his inner concentration is unbroken. If a tragedian performed King Lear this way we’d probably hoot him off the stage. But just when we’re ready to find the whole thing risible, we begin to believe it. No, he’s not a charlatan; no, he’s not a joke. He’s a believer. It’s for real.
The mystery of who and what Leonard Bernstein was is what draws us to accounts of his life, and now to a large collection of his letters, The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone. Surely the letters of such a well-educated and literate man, a practiced and effective writer—author of best sellers about music, important lectures, successful television scripts—will be revealing? Alas, it is not so. Despite his cleverness and charm—which definitely come through—we’re left knowing no more, really, than we knew before. The confusion between genius and narcissism, heroism and self-pity, generosity and exploitation…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.