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Chapter Twenty Five of Keeping Score in America: Leonard Bernstein

By Michael Moriarty
web posted December 9, 2013

Leonard Bernstein
The Split Vision of Genius

Met him once.

Heard from him once.

He'd listened to a crude recording of a music school's rather uninspired performance of my Symphony For String Orchestra.

He commented, through our mutual friend and agent,
Robby Lantz, "Impressive, albeit academic".

That's really all I've needed to keep going as a composer. That and Nina Beilina's Bachanalia Festival Orchestra.

Following that, my Symphony For String Orchestra was honored with two well-received performances in both Toronto and Calgary.

A certain… and I mean profoundly committed sense of one's own gifts, as displayed by Bernstein in this video of The Making of West Side Story, is sine qua non!

Without such seeming arrogance, a career like Bernstein's is impossible.

Without certainty and, at least, some approval from the world, the hopes of a composer such as myself are impossible to sustain… unless you are Vincent Van Gogh! And, well, how that tortured soul lived as long as he did, given the unrelenting, wilderness plight of his mind, is a miracle.

Then again, all of my life, since my wife and I have moved to our present apartment, has become a particularly divine miracle!

As another genius, Miles Davis concluded, according to an acquaintance, "Life is perfect!"

Despite appearances, as Miles Davis said near the end of his life, "All of life is perfect".

Therefore these last years of mine, spent almost entirely as a composer, are heaven on earth!

Meanwhile, the closely watched and expertly recorded highlights of Leonard Bernstein's entire life are a splendid peek into the reality, both heart and soul, of a genius.

A genius who undeniably led his own, very perfect life!

No, not a saintly existence. A humanly perfect event!!

For the avid fan of both Bernstein and the art of symphonic music, here is, for myself at least, a mesmerizing look at not only the art of conducting but the structural underpinnings of a 20th Century Masterpiece, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Ever teaching!!! Ever teaching, ever teaching!!!!

That, above all, was the common denominator to everything flowing from Leonard Bernstein's hands, including his own compositions!

To teach without pedantry is an impossibility. Not even Bernstein could pull that off.

However, when you see how the old master instructs the very young, mainly German music students, in the ways and wiles of Igor Stravinsky, and does so almost entirely in English?!?!

Bernstein, when facing his Austrian peers?!

He conducts in German!

I'm not a fan of Gustav Mahler's music and nothing in Bernstein's committed salesmanship, including his performances of Mahler, can persuade me otherwise.

However, Bernstein's capacity to love, regardless of the outside world's opinion of Mahler's music, that of all things is most important to me and was the deciding factor in my now eternal love affair with the humanity as well as the genius of Leonard Bernstein!!

If you want to know how genius amounts to being partly possessed by it, you must sit through the 2 1/2 hour entirety of this rehearsal. Within it, around 36:30 minutes into this tape, Bernstein shares how destroyed he feels after conducting a Mahler symphony, "I'm a wreck!"

This is one of the healthiest souls that God and The World ever had the joy of lifting to greatness! Yet, Mahler drives Bernstein to insane levels of effort!!

Why?

The price of genius.

And love.

Bernstein so identifies with Mahler that he considers an insult to the Viennese conductor/composer an insult to himself.

He remarks how young people particularly adore Mahler.

My explanation?

The young identify not only with Mahler's self-indulgent, hypersensitivity but Bernstein's romanticism!

For a composer like myself whose first taste of the symphony orchestra was the romantic outbursts of Sergei Rachmaninoff, I am also a born-romantic.

Then why does Mahler put me off?

Though bravely Jewish in Vienna, Austria, he was almost as spoiled in his "greatness" as the viciously anti-Semitic German Richard Wagner was. Mahler held a prestigious position as conductor of the Vienna Court Opera and husband to one of the most magnetic and provocative women in history, Alma Maria Schindler Mahler.

Fascinating contrasts exist between these two German geniuses: Wagner and Mahler.

Without either Bernstein's narration to accompany the last movement of the Mahler 9th nor the image of Bernstein conducting the 9th with complete and utter abandon, acting the entire thing out, a kind of Method conducting: Being The Music instead of merely directing traffic.

Be Mahler! Or more precisely let Mahler be Bernstein, a much more interesting, lovable, generous artist than the Viennese tyrant could ever be.

After watching the rehearsals, we then enjoy a second over-view of the entire Mahler 9th Symphony.

As Bernstein describes it: "The greatest farewell symphony ever written by anybody… ", it is actually Four Ways To Say Goodbye.

With Bernstein we are given an entire film inspired by Mahler's 9th Symphony!

It's the Mahler Requiem or Four Ways To Say Goodbye.

Constant contrast between the nightmare longings of Bernstein/Mahler versus the interspersed moments of "schön" or beauty.

Bernstein, certainly before his own death, made the Mahler 9th his own version of Death itself and, perhaps, with each time  he conducted the 9th, rehearsed his own end.

The second movement is Dance!

Both peasant-loving and yet sophisticated.

We hear the extremes of classic manic-depression or, as I prefer to describe it, the range of almost all of Shakespeare's major roles.

Again, Bernstein repeats the extent to which he loses himself in the "extremes" of the music.

"I have to act out what I want to hear."

The Third Movement of the 9th, according to the Maestro, is one more "Farewell" to Urban Life, not in waltz time but in 4!

He describes it as "racing toward doom!"

Perhaps he saw the New York I faced when I spoke out against Janet Reno and the Clinton Administration: a suicidal sophistication!!

"We are above it all!!"

Yeah, right.

Bernstein almost makes me want to conduct it myself!!

Why?

Mahler knew what I came to realize for certain: "sophistication to no purpose".

That, a truth so unspoken in America these days, is my door into Mahler's 9th! Mahler's bitter satire!!!!

This!! This third movement!!!! One begins to see the only direction that younger composers of the period, men like Berg and Webern, one realizes that they have no alternative but to leave diatonic harmony and walk directly out of Mahler's Third Movement of the 9th and into an atonal, 12 tone universe.

Both Bernstein and my other favorite, Carlos Kleiber, articulate the music in primarily rhythmic exclamations: "Ba-da-da-do-do-do-dinga-bot-dinga-bot!"

After Bernstein's profound explication of not only Mahler's music but Mahler's state of mind itself while composing the 9th?!

The last page of the symphony?

Listen to Leonard Bernstein and his Vienna orchestra live it for you!

Yes, like great actors!

They are the music!!

They all have become the very soul of Gustav Mahler!!!

Can an audience or a composer ask for anything more from life?!

Such a resurrection?!

Such, as James Joyce might describe it, a promisingly eternal "epiphany"?! ESR

Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at rainbowfamily2008@yahoo.com. He can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@MGMoriarty.

 

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