Washington — It happens during the last triumphant notes of "Lincoln Portrait" as Leonard Bernstein rises on tiptoe on the podium, reaching, stretching, lifting the orchestra up with all his musical might into the final crashing crescendo. The music explodes and falls like stars all around him. The audience goes wild, like a rock concert audience, yelling "Whooooooh!" and whistling and shouting and stamping and even crying "Bravo!," which in this frenetic atmosphere seems restrained.
Bernstein, his normally tan face pink with exertion, steps down off the podium and hugs the "Portrait" composer, Aaron Copland, who has narrated the piece as part of his 80th birthday gala concert with the National Symphony Orchestra. It is Copland's evening, but Bernstein has given generously of his talent to help make it a success. The two men, regal in white ties and tails, leave the stage only to return to more exstatic applause and shouts.
On the second bow, Bernstein has shaken off the mood of the music and returns looking somewhat drained, but grinning from ear to ear. The day before, after a rehearsal of "Lincoln Portrait," he had opened up and shared an unexpected insight into how a conductor feels on the podium after a climactic performance. He is talking about the rewards of performing, about how even better than the applause is this:
"A much greater reward when conducting a piece is that . . . it's not just that 100 people are sharing the same feelings, but they are sharing with me the feelings of the composer. It's an incredible thing, to identify so closely with the composer that you in a sense become the composer.
"And the only way I have knowing whether I've done a really remarkable performance or a specially great performance is when I lose my ego completely and become the composer and have the feeling that I'm creating the piece, writing the piece on stage, just click, click, clikc [he does it fast as castanets], making it up as I go along, along with those 100 people who are also making it up with me. And these ideas just occur, bring in the oboe here, an F-sharp in the bass, so on. And when such a performance happens, which isn't too frequently, when it's over, I usually don't know where I am, what city, and it takes quite a while to get back, and then you hear applause, you're aware of people clapping and yelling, and it's quite a long time before you return to your physical manifestation as a performer, as a conductor, who has walked up on this box with a baton ina public hall and done a performance."
Does his other love, composing, ever give him that feeling of the slipping away from time?
"Very often, that's when things are going well, when you work on your own clock, and time, as it's generally thought of, stops."
Time will stop momentarily for Mr. Bernstein on Sunday, Dec. 7, with a sort of national freeze-frame of his career as conductor, composer, concert pianist, writer, teacher, and TV performer. On that evening the third annual Kennedy Center Honors for career achievement in the performing arts will salute bernstein, along with actor James Cagney, choreographer Agnes de Mille, actress Lynn Fontanne, and singer Leontyne Price, at a gala performance in the center's opera house.
The program will be broadcast nationwide on CBS the night of Dec. 27. George Stevens, who is producing the program for the center, says Bernstein was chosen for his "extraordinary and unique accomplishment in scope and excellence," which will be reflected in a short film to be shown that night, along with live performances of Bernstein's music by some of his colleagues. Stevens noted, too , how much Bernstein has "reached out to the public over the years," to share his love for music on television. "As he once said about his treatment of Beethoven, he would 'like him to be accessible without being ordinary.' That sums up what appeals to us about Bernstein."
Certainly Bernstein as conductor seizes the public imagination. Whether he is rehearsing in sneakers and blue jeans or performing in white tie and tails, there is a dramatic dynamism about his conducting. He brandishes the baton like an ax over the heads of the orchestra or clutches it like a thunderbolt or swings it like a machete; he shushes them or storms at them or coaches them or soothes them or croons praise at them or whips them into a crescendo, working at it furiously until his hair falls in damp bangs on his forehead and the sweat darkens his back and shoulders where the muscles bunch, powerful as an Olympic swimmer's.
Last year Aaron Copland, one of Bernstein's mentors, was one of the Kennedy Center honorees. Bernstein, as one of this year's, talks fondly of their 43 -year frinedhsip. Copland is one of Bernstein's heroes, going back to the day in November 1937 when Bernstein, a junior at Harvard, "a little provincial Boston boy," as he describes himself, met the world-famous composer on his first trip to New York. Teh occasion was the New York debut of modern dancer Anna Sokolow, whom Bernstein had met through a graduate-student friend. The friend was dating Muriel Rukeyser, the poet, and the row they sat in was stuffed with celebrities: Bernstein found himself seated next to Copland.
As a student at Harvard, Bernstein had already learned Copland's difficult "Piano Variations" on his own, "and it became one of my big numbers.In parties I used to empty rooms [with it] -- it was a highly dissonant work. And because of the nature of that work I had pictured him as a kind of Old Testament prophet, bearded, terrifying in aspect, and old, a sort of Walt Whitman patriarch. Adn instead here was this lean, charming, young, toothy, giggling fellow of 37, 37 that very day. It was his birthday. And he was having a birthday party for his friends afterward and invited me to join it. And when he found out I had played the piano variations, he sat me down at his piano and I played the variations and he was delighted and astonished that a young kid from Harvard could do that. And it's interesting, because at that time that piece was still considered avant-garde. . . . It's a mighty work, anyway, and we became good friends, from that day to this."
Watching Bernstein conduct Copland and coach the composer at rehearsal offers an interesting glimpse of the contrast between the two men: Bernstein extroverted, dramatic, even flamboyant; Copland a private man, listening to his music musingly, head down, his voice as he reads the words at first mild, quietly conversational. Every now and then as Bernstein spurs the orchestra into a sudden leap or turn, Copland gives a faint jump, surprised at the vehemence of his music, then smiles.When Copland comes to the line "It is the same tyrannical principle . . ." Bernstein coaches him: "You could shout that." And Copland says mildly, "I am not a shouter."
He strolls on through the words softly, "Lincoln was a quiet man, Abraham Lincoln was a quiet, melancholy man. . . ." And Bernstein turns to him to say: "Take more time and make it really rabbinical, that line about no democracy, make it a little more didactic." Copland nods calmly.
As both composer and conductor, Bernstein has obviously thought deeply about the men whose music he conducts. We are talking about Peter Shaffer's current play "Amadeus." In it, Mozart, who wrote such sublime music, is pictured as simply a conduit through which a God-given talent flowed. I mention that it flowed in spite of or apart from Shaffer's concept of Mozart as a petty, churlish, -- and here Bernstein breaks in -- "pain in the neck, foul-mouthed. Beethoven was pretty foul-mouthed, too. He was an awful person. Nobody liked him. Couldn't get along with his servants or his landlady or his neighbors. He lived in 71 different addresses in Vienna."
Bernstein is asked if there a correlation between the music and the composer; is it accurate to have Mozart saying he is only a conduit, that the music goes right through him?
"True," he says. For example, take Aaraon. Aaron is as a man the perfect example of moderation, good judgment. I've always trusted him implicitly, trusted his advice implicitly. He never displayed great emotion. Well, you could hear that when he was reading in the 'Portrait." He doesn't ham at all, he doesn't really get excited and declaim. And he's been very famous for that among the people who know. But some of his music is extremely declamatory and agressive and thorny and very private.And there are times when you just don't reconcile the music you're hearing with the man you know. Except that you learn a lot about the inner man from his music. Except that he has so well controlled his behavior that he never displays that kind of aggressiveness and thorniness or whatever."
You learn a lot too about the inner Bernstein from watching him conduct. The maestro side, however, is only half of Leonard Amber, as he called himself when he took a job at the Harms Inc. music publishers at the age of 24. Like Amber, with a warm, golden glow: That's the Bernstein you see conducting or performing with expansive talent and charm on any concert stage. The other half, the private side, the composing side, is like a reverse image: the subdued (almost to the point of coolness), contemplative, low-key Lenny.
Bernstein has just come out of-hibernation: He's devoting this whole year to composing, with the exception of the birthday present to Copland and one or two other special concerts. The stock newspaper phrase about celebrities going "into seclusion" has special meaning for the creative artist, who must have days and rooms full of silence to create. And Bernstein is in that phase now.
Has he ever regretted the time that conducting (no matter how brilliant and satisfying) takes from composing?
"I do all my life. But there's nothing I can do about it. Because part of me is a performer. That's part of the problem of being complex and diverse person. I'ts almost a schizoid situation, and you change from one to the other. There's a big effort initially and a period of time involved. And usually a period of time in which you have to get used to being the public personage again , with all the stuff that goes with conducting: parties, and receptions, and press [he winces involuntarily at "press" then smiles when caught at it] . . .and cameras and the traveling and being met in the city by the mayor or a delegation. . . .
"It's all lovely, but it takes time to get used to that again if you've been living a private life. And the converse of that is even more difficult, after a year of that, getting back to being that private inner person who lives mainly in solitude. Because it's a very lonely thing. It takes again a time, a transition period, of letting that other persona take over. That's why I say it's schizoid, it's like having two personas.' n addition to the split between the golden performer and the creative artist there is a sub-split: Bernstein is almost unique in American music as a composer of both successful popular music and serious concert works. He is, in his own word, eclectic. He is in fact so diverse in his creativity that Israel had a retrospective for him, as though he were a film star, a two-week festival of his works in 1977.Three similar festivals followed in Austria and the United States.
The Bernstein who wrote the evocative score of the hit musical "West Side Story" and the scores for "On the Town," "wonderful Town," "Candide," and the short-lived "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" has also written three ballets: "Fancy Free," "Facsimile," and "Dybbuk"; a one-act opera, "Trouble in Tahiti"; and the score for the film "On the Waterfront."
He has written three symphonies: "Mass," a theater piece for singers, players , and dancers which marked the opening of Kennedy center; a cycle of American poems for singers and orchestra, titled "Songfest"; a "serenade" for violin and string orchestra; an overture titled "Slava!," dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich of the National Symphony Orchestra; "Three Meditations for Solo Cello and Orchestra"; and most recently, a Divertimento for Orchestra, written for the 100th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The symphonies -- "Jeremiah," "Age of Anxiety," and "Kaddish" --as well as his "Chichester Psalms" for orchestra and chorus and the "Mass" -- all have a crucial common theme. Critic Jack Gottlieb has said that "the three symphonies of Leonard Bernstein are concerned with the loss and retrieval of faith by man, not so much in God as in himself. . . ." He traces Bernstein's theme through the Chichester Psalms, where faith is "grasped by the vision of childlike innocence, " and the mass, where hope rises "like a phoenix. . . ."
Bernstein himself during a press conference in Berlin said: "In a sense I suppose I'm always writing the same piece, as all composers do. The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, the crisis of faith."
When Leonard Bernstein is asked if his composing this year is a variation on that theme, he answers:
"Every artist works so subjectively and looks at his own work so subjectively that he has no right to criticize it. HE doesn't have the perspective to enable him to make an objective judgment. Therefore I never make judgments about my work. But I still hold to what i said in Berlin in a general sense. And that applies even to very lighthearted music.
"The last orchestral piece I wrote was the divertimento for the boston Symphony Orchestra . . . And it's a very popsy sort of piece in the sense that I wrote it as a kind of nostalgia trip back to Symphony Hall, where I first heard orchestra music. And of course that orchestra music was mainly played by Arthur Fiedler. . . . When I was 14 I didn't know about going to real concerts, couldn't afford it, but I was taken to Pops now and then, and that's all reflected in this divertimento.But even in this lighthearted peice, which has a waltz and a mazurka and a Sousa march and the blues and turkey trot and samba, all kinds of things which you would not think, offhand, had anything to do with the crisis of faith, it still does [relate to faith].
"Even in that piece there are, metaphorically speaking, struggles going on between what seems to be on the surface and a certain searching that underlies the lighthearted surface. More specifically, there is a struggle going on between 12-tone writing [using all 12 intervals in the scale] and tonal, diatonic writing [using the standard 8-note scale] which has long been one of the symbols in my music for the struggle."
Earlier, in the Berlin press conference, he had described the struggle between tonal vs. nontonal music in his writing as the expression of the inward struggle of optimism vs. pessimism. In effect, the dissonance, the lack of traditional harmony or a central unifying tone, then comes to stand in his music for pessimism, a lack of faith.
he has called the "Chichester Psalms" the "most accessible . . . tonal piece I've ever written." In the "Chichester Psalms" he has written a lucid, beautiful score as David the Psalmist might have played it, based on the original Hebrew Psalms, alternating joy and praise for God with hushed, still faith in the triumph of God over all enemies.
Apparently a composer experiences the same alternation of the effortless flow of ideas, the same hard, grinding struggle to produce a work, that serious writers do. Speaking of his own composing, Bernstein says, "In the course of a day of real living, one goes through things that are fun, spontaneous, and also goes through things that are difficult and laborious. The life of the creative mind or soul is exactly parallel to this more outer life, except that it exits deep inside. And there are times, I can remember, flashes of ideas, inspirations, if you want to call them that.
"I remember getting the openings bars of 'Fancy Free' many years ago, back in 1944, in the Russian Tea Room [in New York] while I was having lunch, in the middle of a conversation. And i wrote those bars down on a napkin. I don't think I stopped the conversation for a second. And i stuck the napkin in my pocket, then went upstairs after lunch [to write], and by the next day I had the first five pages of 'Fancy Free.' It can happen that way. A number of times you sit and wait for it to come or liem and wait for it to come. Because very often you lie down. And people think you're asleep, but you're not. You're in a kind of trance state, which is a very necessary state for creating."
Does a composer like Bernstein know, then, when an image or idea comes to him as music, what form the inspiration will take? Does he know whether it's going to be the love song "Maria" from "West Side Story," or the symphonic grief of the "jeremiah" symphony?
"Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. It's that various. . . Sometimes you get a tune, for example, and you think someday this will make a nice song in some theater piece. I got one this summer and jotted down and had no way of knowing what it was, except that I was writing a theater piece and I thought maybe this belonged in it. But I didn't have any idea or title or lyric, what it was all about, except that I like the tune very much. And it meant something to me. It was tender. And now it's turning up in a piece I'm writing for flute and string orchestra without any words at all."
What Bernstein says suggests that for the composer writing a piece there is the same thrill of discovery as that of the audience hearing it for the first time. He says "ummmm" skeptically to that, then elaborates: "Only it's a more exciting discovery, because the possibilities are so enormous. You see, what the audience hears is already prediscovered, prepared, finished, wrapped up. But what I'm discovering has still infinite possibilities of developmental change."
As he says this, the imposing persona of the maestro-composer fades for a second: the dramatic, prowlike features in a seamed tan face, the crest of silver hair. For a second, the dark brown eyes become the eyes of a little kid about to unwrap the best birthday present of his life, full of that excitement of discovery.
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Mass., the son of immigrant Russian parents, Samuel Joseph and Jennie (Resnick) Bernstein. He discovered music at the age of 10 when a relative asked the Bernsteins to take care of an old upright piano. They couldn't tear him away from the piano; Lenny Bernstein already knew what he wanted to do with his life. But he wasn't encouraged to become a musician by his father, a man who provided a comfortable living for his family with a beauty supply business. He didn't think his son would be able to support himself as a musician. As his father once said in a now classic line: How did I know he was going to grow up to become Leonard Bernstein?
Before he became rich, famous, and prodigious, Bernstein went from boston Latin School to Harvard. There he studied piano with Henrich Gebhard and composition with Walter Piston.
Bernstein remembers that while he was at Harvard he met his "original hero," even before his two great conducting masters, Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitsky. That original hero was conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos, who had been invited to A Greek society reception at Harvard. Mitropoulos took a shine to him and invited him to attend rehearsals with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he was guest-conducting. A year later, after he'd graduated cum laude from Harvard, Bernstein ran into Mitropoulos in New York.
"I was looking for a job and not finding one. And Mitropoulos, into whom I'd run by accident, said, "You've got to be a conductor!,' which had never occurred to me. It had never been an ambition or notion. And i said, 'How do you know?' He said, 'There are just some things that one knows. . . .' He was a very mystical Greek and it was because of that I applied to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where Reiner was teacher, and studied with him for a year. And in the summer Koussevitsky [conductor of the Boston Symphony] happened to open a place called Tanglewood, and I was accepted." He was soon named assistant to Koussevitsky.
"It was a marvelous education, but it all started with Mitropoulos, who still has an enormous influence on my repertoire and on a lot of the ways I think about music. He was a tremendous musical intellectual."
By the next year Bernstein had been named assistant director of the New York Philharmonic by its music director, Artur Rodzinski, who told Bernstein that he had asked God whom he should hire as his assistant, and god had directed him to hire Bernstein. Three months later Bernstein's big break came when he was called in an emergency at 8 one morning to replace an ailing Bruno Walter as conductor of the Philharmonic in a coast-to-coast broadcaster over CBS.
With almost no preparation, Bernstein conducted a brilliant concert that resulted in raves from the audience and critics, a front page story in the New York Times, and the launching of his career as a major conductor. He quickly became music director of the New York City Symphony, then in the years that followed, head of the conducting faculty at the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood, in western Massachusetts), professor of music at Brandeis University, and music director of the New York Philharmonic (1958). He has since been named the Philharmonic's laureate conductor, a lifelong post, and has conducted most of the world's major orchestras.
Along the way he managed to pick up 10 Emmy Awards for his "Young People's Concerts" with the Philharmonic, broadcast for 14 years over CBS television. In addition, he has written a few best sellers: "The Joy of Music," "Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts," and the "Infinite Variety of Music," as well as giving six lectures titled "The Unanswered Question" as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. The lectures were televised by PBS, recorded on columbia, and published by Harvard University Press.
Which brings us to what Leonard Bernstein believes he is, basically: a teacher. He describes himself as "rabbinical. I say that because one of the great passions of my life -- I guess the real great passion -- is teaching. And I do that, whatever else I do, I do that. When I write a piece or conduct a piece I am teaching all the time. Not just teaching the orchestra at rehearsal but in some way teaching the public even in a performancE.
"And that's why i tend to underline points too strongly, musical points, and i get criticized, especially by critics who feel affronted that such things have to be pointed out to them: 'We know that, we know that inner line without its having to be stressed, spotlit or whatever.' But if that's a failing, it's a failing. It's a compulsion that I have.
"I tend to lecture a lot to my children [daughters Jamie and Nina and son Alexander by his late wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn].I'm constantly correcting their syntax and grammar. It's all part of this rabbinical thing," says the man who sees conducting as almost a religious ceremony -- as he has said in the past, "a service one is performing."