Sunday, December 8, 2013

Leonard Bernstein: Champion of the Middle-brow?

I have no desire to read all 606 pages of The Leonard Bernstein Letters, no matter how good a job Nigel Simeone did as editor. I figure that reading Robert Gottlieb's account of the book for The New York Review has informed me to a level of satisfaction that does not need to be further advanced. I rather like Gottlieb's dispassionate approach, providing background material when it was necessary and being "frank and open" about many of the warts without getting overly judgmental about any of them.

For better or worse, however, I realize that my own opinions of Bernstein have been shaped, at least in part, by the time I have put into reading Amiria Baraka (writing as LeRoi Jones) writing about jazz. If was from reading Baraka that I confronted that hard truth that not everyone who pays to attend a performance of music is necessarily committed to actually listening (in Igor Stravinsky's sense of that word) to that performance. For Baraka such lackadaisical audiences were simply symptoms of a "culture of middle-brow thinking." Among the middle-brow, Bernstein was the ultimate source of knowledge of the concert repertoire. I have even known music critics capable of writing accounts of concerts that I have felt were worth reading who still, perhaps out of reflex, regard Bernstein as the ultimate authority when it comes to bringing a better understanding of music to the general public.

From my point of view, I recognize that he could labor long and hard to simplify the complex. Unfortunately, there are too many situations when he achieved that goal through distortions that run the gamut from simply confusing to creating dangerously false impressions. The good news is that he tended to focus on topics that he figured would "sell" to the general public. One positive result is thus than Arnold Schoenberg was spared his distortions (as, for that matter, was Thelonious Monk). On the other hand I shall always remember when he decided it was time to explain what was happening to popular music in the wake of The Beatles and eventually came to the conclusion that the epitome of how things had changed could be found in the music of Janis Ian!

I would now like to skate out on some thin ice and suggest that Bernstein could thrive in New York because so many New Yorkers were eager to gobble up the stuff he was dishing out. Baraka was obviously not one of them. Indeed, among those who took teaching very seriously, I get the impression from available biographical material that Lennie Tristano knew the limitations of Bernstein' superficial capacity for perception. One consequence is that, for some time, if you wanted to go to Lincoln Center to inform yourself on how a piece of music ticked, you would learn more from watching the choreography of George Balanchine at the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) than you would from buying a ticket to get into Avery Fisher Hall. Those were days when it seemed as if Chicago had better taste in conductors.

Fortunately, the New York Philharmonic now has Alan Gilbert, and life seems to have become more interesting. I am left wondering, however, if Bernstein would ever have figured out what to make of a composer like Magnus Lindberg. My guess is that Lindberg would have been too far from Bernstein's comfort zone; but in that distance Lindberg would have enjoyed the company of Frank Zappa, Edgard Varèse, and John Cage!

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