Memories of Leonard Bernstein

Memories of Leonard Bernstein from a couple of our Orchestra members

Leonard Bernstein and the Enigma
LMPO Conductor Christopher Bearman’s piece on Elgar’s Enigma variations

Perhaps he just didn’t get it;
When I opened the score last July in preparation for LMP performance of the Enigma Variations earlier this month November my mind immediately side stepped thirty five years to the week in April 1982 when Bernstein made his only visit to the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London.
From my seat in the violin section I was able to observe the unfolding of what is now considered one of the polarizing interpretations of this famous work. The few days it took to rehearse perform and record Elgar’s masterpiece are etched in the memory. If we accept that the listener either loves or rejects this performance then we cannot disassociate it with the turbulent times that coincided with Bernstein’s visit. Not only was Britain in the height of the Thatcher era but also on the brink of engaging in the Falklands Wars. During this time there was no middle ground to be had Britain was polarized although to the outside world it may not have seemed that way.
Discussing this with Stephanie (my wife) her response was a sudden “perhaps he just didn’t get it”. This is the closest I have been to understanding what took place and looking back there were probably in particular three ways Bernstein related to the orchestra and the music which support Stephanie’s theory.
Firstly as one of America’s foremost composers and artists Bernstein was in high demand worldwide. In this regard he was no stranger to London. He had been nurtured into the presidency of the London Symphony Orchestra LSO then considered in the top ten of the world’s greatest orchestras. This courtship had brought with it international profile and commercial reward for the orchestra which was a self governing body. By contrast the BBC Symphony was the performing arm of the national broadcaster in the same way the State Orchestras in Australia operated before deregulation. The musicians stood to gain little from the experience except the direction of one of the world’s icon musicians. This should have been enough but Bernstein’s initial posturing with the orchestra certainly eroded much of the expectation. The visit got off to the worse possible start with Bernstein arriving an hour late for the first televised rehearsal at TV centre in West London. Rather than apologize he made an excuse which simply was not viable to anyone in the know at the BBC. Rodney Friend the concert master of the BBC Symphony at the time was well acquainted with Bernstein from his previous concert master position with the New York Philharmonic and stood up to welcome the maestro but was abruptly interrupted by Bernstein who was now in a hurry to get started. Rather than listen to the orchestra which was different in character from the LSO he became assertive in the very early stages of the piece as if he was checking the orchestra out for no particular musical reason. There is a brief example of his early brush with the trumpet section on You Tube . The orchestra were also surprised to see an assistant or valet in attendance next to the podium and even more surprised when he lit Bernstein’s cigarettes at regular intervals. By 1982 all studios were no smoking areas.
Secondly and more surprising were the references and links made to Britain’s engagement in the Falklands War. While rehearsing Nimrod which became almost a soundscape in the early bars Bernstein made reference to the Royal Navy crossing the Atlantic the inference being that somehow Elgar was closely linked to Britain’s martial character and military history. This could not be further from the truth as born out by his limited output following the First World War and his overall emotional reaction after 1918. Bernstein’s comment was followed by one of those silences one never forgets. True, America had distanced itself from Britain on the issue of the Falklands but to bring the subject to the ‘workplace” seemed incomprehensible from a person of mature years and international experience.

Thirdly Bernstein was known as a music educator; he was fascinated by the storyline which accompanies the Variations and at times justified his interpretation according to the text. This met in some cases to disbelief from the players. The equivalent would probably be an English conductor arriving at a German Radio Orchestra such as GDR and announcing how to play Brahms or Beethoven. Whether we like the music or not as English musicians we have to accept Elgar is in our DNA as Brahms in the same way belongs to our colleagues in Germany. This does not mean an American conductor cannot direct Elgar but an intellectual interference with what comes naturally is always going to produce unexpected results. The major challenge Bernstein presents to us in this interpretation is his choice of tempo at poignant moments in the work. The performance on record from the concert last six or seven minutes longer than any other ; this is due to three crucial tempo choices ; firstly the opening theme is slow and quite ponderous and although each phrase is well crafted the melody line and harmonic structure are lost and the listener is left with nothing to refer to in the following variations. Listesso tempo into the first variation makes this even more obvious. Alice appears to be cast in the first variation as if in the twilight of life. As one member of the orchestra was heard to say “just how old does he think Alice was when Elgar wrote this” The tempo choice for Nimrod is the main reason for the extra length in the performance, in the opening bars there is very little pulse and even the note values are unclear so slow is the speed. True Bernstein creates a wonderful sound but as in the theme the melodic line and the subtle harmonic variants are lost. It takes so long to reach the climax of this variation that the meaning of the central and most intense part of the work is weakened altogether. Rather than a tribute to his mentor who helped Elgar conquer self doubt Nimrod becomes an exercise in squeezing melancholy from every bar. The Finale begins ahead of Elgar’s marking but at the coda section Bernstein finds a new slower tempo rather than moving on the result being there is nothing left for the final cadences however this does not prevent Bernstein from expanding even further giving the final few bars a “blockbuster” treatment. I heard one member of the orchestra say “Lennie certainly knows how to milk it”. The point is though do we have to milk great music?
In this regard my favourite performance of the Enigma (on youtube) is Gennadi Rodesvensky (a more Russian maestro you could not hope to meet) guiding the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra through a wonderful performance with just a few friendly gestures which show his respect and genuine interest in the score.
One image which stays in my mind is seeing Bernstein alone on the podium in the orchestral break on the morning of the concert; head down and obviously in deep thought; what was going through his mind? We will never know but the result left us no middle ground. Bernstein’s Enigma still keeps us wondering in quite a different way than Elgar intended.
From a personal viewpoint as player and conductor the vital question is “If Elgar had simply published this work Symphonic Variations on an Original Theme and omitted all the associated titles and initials for the variations would Enigma have achieved the status in the orchestral repertoire it has today.”? In other words can we put these variations on a par with say the variations of Brahms, Dvorak or even Beethoven. I may be biased but my answer is a resounding yes and that is all “we have to get” to do justice to the Enigma Variations .

Christopher Bearman

Paul Groh’s Memories
Lead viola player Paul Groh’s memories of Leonard Bernstein

I’m familiar with Chris’s account of recording Enigma under Leonard Bernstein, and reading it brought back memories of my own. My one and only encounter with Bernstein took place in the summer of 1976 at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, where I was a student in the high school division. There was one concert with the university orchestra where the first half consisted of three compositions by Bernstein, all conducted by students; then in the second half, the great man himself came out to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Most of the audience were enthusiastic young people like myself who had seen him on television and heard his recordings, and he received a real rockstar ovation when he took the stage. The audience applauded thunderously between movements and even during the grand pauses, but I knew my concert etiquette and forbore.

I had already obtained autographs from a number of famous musicians that summer and was eager to add Bernstein’s to my collection, so after the concert I waited ninety minutes at the stage door before I was finally granted admittance. Bernstein was sitting in the green room in his dressing gown, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, singing dirty lyrics to the finale of the Tchaikovsky. After a few minutes he took notice of me and consented to sign my program and my score to the symphony. (I’ve lost the former but still have the latter.) When I told him how much I enjoyed the concert, he snapped: “Well, you didn’t have to clap at every quarter rest.”

What I should have said was: “Hey, if you hadn’t taken the tempos so slowly, people might not have thought the piece was over!” But I didn’t think of it until later, and wouldn’t have had the nerve anyway.

During my second summer at Tanglewood, the following year, Bernstein was meant to conduct my orchestra in a reading of the Prelude and Love Death from Tristan und Isolde. Bernstein was on a real Wagner kick in the seventies, setting new records for slow tempos; he was the first conductor in history to take over 20 minutes to get to the end of the Liebestod. One Christmas my parents gave me an LP called Bernstein Conducts Wagner, which I got into the habit of playing at 45 RPM because I preferred the tempos at that speed, even though it put everything a perfect fourth sharp. To this day the Meistersinger prelude sounds funny to me, because I expect to hear it in the key of F.

Anyway, the day Bernstein was supposed to conduct us, he just plumb didn’t show up. I never found out why. We did the reading with our regular conductor and had great fun doing it.

Bernstein died in 1990. One of the last concerts he conducted was Beethoven’s Ninth at the Berlin Wall shortly after it was opened up, for which occasion he had the singers substitute the word Freiheit (freedom) for Freude (joy). I cannot tell you how much it infuriated me that he changed one of the towering achievements of human civilisation to make a topical political statement. Everybody says it was the cigarettes that killed him shortly after that, but I know that it was really my own evil thoughts, directed at him from across the Atlantic, that were responsible.

I murdered Leonard Bernstein, and I’m glad!

Love that West Side Story, though.