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Lights are dimming, there is a faint smell of perfume in the air and a field of short greyish haircuts spreads out in front of me. That’s right: I’m at a classical music concert. Why did I come alone? My friends have some favorite go-to YouTube recordings of classical pieces to listen to in the privacy of their bedrooms, but there seems to be a slight reluctance to go sit still in the velours seats of a concert hall. Maybe we aren’t taught how accurate and relevant this repertoire and the live experience is anymore in the way Leonard Bernstein communicated it through playing, conducting and speaking about music. With the charms of a devious puppy, the man inspired generations.
Text written & images found by Louise Souvagie
Because of what should have been the centenary of conductor/composer/musician/homo universalis Leonard Bernstein, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra has arranged a series of productions concerning his musical legacy which resulted in a refreshing program containing compositions which were to be ‘a bliss of ambiguities’ according to the Maestro himself.
Leonard Bernstein largely shaped the landscape of classical music in America throughout the twentieth century. He grew up as the son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants in Boston and moved to New York to continue his musical studies where he made his stunning conductorial debut when he suddenly had to cover for someone who fell sick at Carnegie Hall. His extravagant style attracted loads of attention: sometimes he would hold the baton with both hands and smash into the air or his feet-stomping would be so loud, it could be heard through Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It payed off: after Igor Stravinsky heard the recording of The Rite of Spring, as conducted by Bernstein, he could only exclaim: ‘Wow.’
Lenny was never disturbed by the critique towards his dramatic gestures and mockingly went on to conduct Haydn’s Symphony No 88 (4th Movement) without using his hands. It resulted in an compelling dance of eyebrows and smirks.
His own compositions varied a lot. He actually wrote the original score for West Side Story which is of course accessible yet, when looked at more closely, layered and complex. Afterwards he fought to not only be categorized as a popular composer but also appreciated by his peers by writing symphonies, music for theatre such as the strange piece Mass and a few operas of which the most acclaimed is Candide.
Bernstein had some strong political views and didn’t hesitate to share them. During the presidency of Edgar Hoover, the FBI kept a huge file containing all Bernstein would comment on in the media. He was accused of being a communist and on the Watergate Tapes Nixon is heard calling him ‘a son of a bitch.’
Bernstein had in fact a loving and generous character. He was the kind of guy who had to be reminded not to kiss the pope on the lips. He simply had ‘so much to share’. It might have also been this personality trait which made him a great educator. Bernstein loved thinking of himself as a Rabbi, such as some of his ancestors, but a cool one with scotch in one hand and an eternal cigarette dangling from the other. He found the ideal play field in TV where he would host shows to explain music. The studio would be painted white like a blow-up of a score sheet, big enough to have the musicians stand on the line they were supposed to play. He would have them removed or added to stress their individual purpose within a certain piece.
Today we experience what some professionals call the Age of Aquarius in classical music. Popular composers today are for example Arvo Pärt or Eric Whitacre: they want to reduce music to an ethereal essence which is pure and simple. People seek out classical music to find peace, but maybe we need a renewed appreciation for personalities such as Leonard Bernstein who dared to face the chaos and dramatic realities of life, who lived each day as if it were The Rite of Spring.
Clubconcert Bernstein 2.0 – 06 december, Koningin Elisabethzaal, Antwerp