Another Look at Lenny

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While writing his article about Bernstein in today’s Daily News, David Hinckley asked if we could talk a bit about Bernstein’s legacy in general, his connection to WNYC in particular, and even more specifically, about what I thought of him. I repeated, for the twentieth time this week, the strange tale of how I discovered WNYC through a short-lived bus/subway ad for the station back in 1979 or 1980. (I’m afraid you’ll be subjected to a recorded version of this story at some point during the “Our Lenny” festival, especially if you listen to Evening Music.)

And then David asked, “how would you rate him as a composer? Was he one of the greats of the 20th century?” Well, this fairly obvious question caught me quite off guard. I did not want to simply answer “no,” although that was my first inclination. Bernstein’s concert works have never gained the traction of his music/theater works, especially “West Side Story” and “Candide” – or at least, the overture to the latter. The Symphonies are problematic, though full of interesting moments… but then I thought, “West Side Story” is likely to still be around when we’re all not. And the NY Phil thought enough of the Candide Overture to play it in Pyongyang this past February, when they made their historic visit to North Korea. Reputations have been established on far less. So I answered yes: because even without Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics – an amazingly forward-looking commentary on race relations in America – the song “America” is brilliant. The Candide Overture is brilliant. And once you really look at Bernstein’s concert music, there are gems there too. The “Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium),” for one. And especially his 1965 piece “Chichester Psalms,” which offer a musical link between Stravinsky’s 1930 “Symphony of Psalms” and Steve Reich’s 1981 “Tehillim.” All three are 20th century classics.

I think Bernstein’s reputation as an educator will never be duplicated – the media landscape is just too fragmented. Even the President can’t command the type of market share now that Bernstein got back then from being on the 3 main networks when they were basically the only game in town. His reputation as a conductor is probably secure, too, despite detractors. For one thing, it was Bernstein who reminded everyone (or told them for the first time) just how marvelous and important the symphonies of Gustav Mahler were. And his Beethoven recordings weren’t too shabby either. But his reputation as a composer, even during his own life, was often overshadowed by these other parts of his life.

So, 50 years from now, when no one alive remembers Bernstein as a ubiquitous media figure, and his recordings have become “historic” the way Toscanini is for us, what will Bernstein’s legacy be? Do you think he’ll be remembered as a composer? Leave a comment.