Among Leonard Bernstein's many (many...so many!...too many?) personas—classical composer (of symphonies, ballets, and operas), Broadway composer (of mighty hits and legendary flops), performer, educator, author, spokesperson for sexual freedom, political activist, media star, gossip column fodder, “Wunderkind of the Western World"—conductor was but one, although central to the very complicated picture of this complex and controversial man. The essential quality of his conducting—and its reception—was equally complex and controversial. Was he a genius? Charlatan? Visionary? Flamboyant poseur? Let's explore some videos and decide for ourselves.
To start with: a pure piece of molten Bernstein. The last measures of Shostakovitch's 5th Symphony in all its bloody, gutsy glory. He seems to almost literally carve the music out of the very living body of the orchestra. It exemplifies his ability "to render almost any abstract sequence of notes or chords as a physical act, a sweatily human gesture." (Alex Ross)
"As a Juilliard student, I ushered at Carnegie Hall [...] and his theatrically suspect gyrations and messy antics on the podium bothered, and even repelled me. But when I joined the Philharmonic I saw the picture as it were from the other side. He was extremely clear [...] he had an unbelievable precision in his body language. Whenever there was anything tricky he would give you the rhythm with a flick of an eyebrow or a smile or just a look. We knew then that his movements weren't put on for the audience's benefit but that he was living music that he believed in and felt and loved with every fiber of his being." –Richard Owens, bassist
Sometimes he even just stopped, dropped his baton to his side, and led with his facial muscles. Granted this was with the Vienna Philharmonic, with which over a long period he had developed an almost mystical relationship.
For a magnificent contrast, look at this clip of one of Bernstein's most important teachers, Fritz Reiner, with the Chicago Symphony, with which Reiner also had quasi-mystical relationship. Reiner, in spite of his minimal baton action and often stolid expression, could unleash raging torrents of Wagnerian splendor or Straussian sensuality along with the best of them.
Bernstein, Ozawa, Karajan
Rehearsals were almost always revelatory:
Finally, the young(ish) Bernstein conducts Bernstein. Somehow, to me these video clips of Bernstein conducting in all their intensity, exuberance, and wild freedom of expression—and there are many more on YouTube in a wide variety of repertory—give a glimpse into an actualization of the hidden creative spirit and the dramatic impulses that guided him as he composed, that produced, among so many uniquely varied works, the jazzy ironies and pointed satire of "Trouble in Tahiti" and the poignant emotional revelations of "Arias & Barcarolles."