Leonard Bernstein was the most important and versatile American musician of the 20th Century. In terms of breadth of accomplishment, his only serious rival is Duke Ellington and despite Ellington’s remarkable career as a leader, pianist and, most importantly, a composer, Bernstein’s was even more so and he excelled in far more disciplines.
I’m sure I first became marginally aware of Bernstein as a teenager. He was all over the television on Omnibus and his Young People’s Concerts, but I don’t remember any specific broadcasts. I’ve looked at old kinescopes of a few and they seem vaguely familiar but I’m fooling myself. The first Bernstein music I really remember is buy levitra cheap, which I saw at the Winter Garden on Broadway in the spring of 1958. I sat in the balcony, next to a man in clerical garb, who was none too pleased with some of the action and language and squirmed his way through the show. I can still see one of the dancers jumping over a chain-link fence that was part of one scene.
A couple of years later, when I was in college, I bought a Bernstein recording of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, his first recording of the work, an old mono, now well-played but not recently vinyl disc in a still serviceable cardboard sleeve with a terrific illustration by Gray Foy. Such was Bernstein’s fame that his name was in type face considerably larger than Stravinsky’s or the title of the piece and three or four times the size of the name of the orchestra. It was an exciting record and since I only had a handful of classical recordings in those days, I played it a lot and probably felt I knew it well enough that I could conduct it from memory and without a score if only I had an orchestra close at hand.
A few years after that I saw the man in person at Constitution Hall in Washington DC. He may have been leading the usually ordinary National Symphony or perhaps the New York Philharmonic was on tour. I wasn’t very sophisticated in 1964-5 and all I recall was that he was a very energetic conductor, but I knew that because that was part of his charm on television. He was eloquent, energetic and telegenic and this was a winning combination.
When I arrived in New York in 1967, he was still leading the big band at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and I managed to see a few concerts, but more importantly he was still making recordings for Columbia and I had access to all of them, old and new, courtesy of Bob Altshuler who ran promotion at the company. So I managed to grab all the Bernstein records I could carry and there were a lot of them, all the standards, but the Mahler and Ives and Shostakovich and Copland and all the others who weren’t Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I had more Bernstein records than I could keep up with, more than by any other conductor and his recordings introduced me to many composers. That he also was fond of jazz helped matters.
Then, in 1975, I managed to meet the man and this is how it happened. A very good guy who produced and sometimes recorded concerts and even composed music now and again named Charles Schwartz came by Downtown Sound to undertake some long forgotten project. He liked what we did for him and noticed we not only had remote recording capability but I had a handful of cameras as well. Charles was producing a series of events at the Whitney Museum that he call Composer’s Showcase and wondered if we could record them and if I could take photographs of the rehearsals and performances and of course we could and did.
We did this for two or three years and I have a bunch of photographs to prove it, of people as diverse as Charles Mingus and Elliot Carter, George Crumb and Mary Lou Williams, Vanessa Redgrave and Clark Terry and Leonard Bernstein.
I managed to take a number of photographs, a few of which came out pretty well, not only of Bernstein but of the performance and performers as well. I made a few prints and sent them to Charles and he sent them along to the Whitney. That’s when the trouble started. Some unknown flunky, but someone smart enough to con me, telephoned and said there was a great deal of enthusiasm for a few of the pictures I’d taken and they’d like to use one in an annual report or some kind of publication. They asked if it would be possible to borrow the negatives so they could make prints. I was naïve and, after all, this was the Whitney Museum. Of course they could, a messenger arrived and that was the end of the story. The negatives vanished; no one at the museum knew what could have happened to them, if they were used in an annual report I never saw a copy. I don’t know if they are in a file, behind a safe, were immediately consigned to a dumpster after they were used or misused. In short, I know nothing and the only record I have that I took the pictures are copies of copies that Charles gave me years ago and a couple of contact sheets. This is the only time anything like this happened to me and it is sad that such an otherwise reputable institution would do something like this. Or maybe it wasn’t as well organized as everyone thought.
At one of the other Composer’s Showcase concerts I was pressed into service as a picture mover, a chore I’m qualified to perform on a modest scale but unqualified and uninsured in a place like the Whitney. It was during the rehearsal for one of Charles’ concerts and a gallery was being cleared of paintings. There were some pretty big paintings that had to be taken down and moved to another gallery, there weren’t enough movers and time was short. I didn’t look busy because I wasn’t, my crew was setting up the recording gear and I was just standing around waiting to find something to photograph. As it turned out I set up the picture.
One of the movers asked if I could give him a hand and I agreed. He got on one end of a very large Tom Wesselmann and I was on the other. We carefully removed it from the wall and he guided me into another gallery where we leaned it against a wall. The painting featured a large mostly nude reclining female figure with big firm tits and stand up straight nipples, a subject Wesselmann explored for most of his career. There was another big painting that also had to be moved, a Frank Stella. It was bigger than the Wesselmann and was a typical Stella of the time with lots of loud colors and curves on a shaped canvas.
Once again, I was on one end and the Whitney guy was on the other, but this time I was in a position to guide where we put it. Mover man said we should lean it carefully against the Wesselmann and that’s just what we did but I steered it in such a way that a big Wesselman stand up straight tittie and perfect nipple seemed to be growing right out of the curve of the Stella. I did it that way because I thought it would make a funny picture and it did. I took a color picture, had an 8”x10” color print made and sent it to the Whitney anonymously. Maybe it wound up in the hands of the twit who lost my negatives. I’ll never know but I’ll bet they lost this picture pretty quick because guys like me shouldn’t have been moving pictures around. I still have this negative; maybe I should send it to them again, and ask them to look around for my Bernstein negatives.
Bernstein kept at it for fifteen more years, making hundreds of more recordings and videos, leading orchestras all over the world and touching hundreds of thousands of people with his musicianship and humanity. Sometime in late 1990 or early 1991, the Grammy Awards box arrived and it contained a copy of a recording of his Bernstein’s last concert from Tanglewood or anywhere else, in August 1990. It was with the Boston Symphony and featured Benjamin Britten’s buy levitra cheap and Beethoven’s buy levitra cheap. I imagined I could hear him trying to catch his breath in this live recording.
As I listened to the Britten I remembered the charming and gracious guy in the white suit at the Whitney. I also remembered that someone had told me that on the day he died at his apartment in the Dakota in October, he’d given a lesson to a young musician earlier in the day. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but based on how he interacted with the musicians at the Whitney that day fifteen years earlier, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true.
Leonard Bernstein, Whitney Museum, New York City, 1975
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Posted in on July 01, 2010 by