In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

The Conductor Cometh: Leonard Bernstein

Apr 23, 2018 10:24:22 AM
By John Conklin

Among Leonard Bernstein's many ( 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.


More contrasts:

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."

Don't miss two of Bernstein's masterpieces this spring:

Buy TAHITI Tickets

John Conklin is the Boston Lyric Opera Artistic Advisor. He has designed sets on and off Broadway, at the Kennedy Center, and for opera companies around the world, including The Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, Bastille Opera in Paris, The Royal Opera and the opera houses of Munich, Amsterdam, and Bologna, among others. Locally, his work has been seen in Boston Lyric Opera’s recent productions of The Rake’s Progress (2017), The Marriage of Figaro (2017), The Merry Widow (2016), Werther (2016), La Bohème (2015), and I Puritani (2014), as well as at the American Repertory Theater and Boston Ballet. Additionally, Mr. Conklin develops lecture series and community events for BLO that enrich the audience experience and strengthen the presence of opera in Boston’s arts community. He is on the faculty at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and was a recipient of the 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors.
IMAGE: Leonard Bernstein conducting, UN, 1965, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Topics: 2017/18 Season, #tahitiBLO, Leonard Bernstein, Conductors, Conducting

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