I’ve been watching the San Francisco Symphony’s Carnegie Hall opening-night celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 90th birthday year on Great Performances. Fittingly, there’s a little bit of everything Lenny here, early and late, Broadway, symphonic, dance, opera, song cycle—symphonic dances from West Side Story, “What a Movie” from Trouble in Tahiti (with Dawn Upshaw), “I Can Cook Too” (Christine Ebersole, pictured), and Meditation No. 1 from Mass (cellist Yo-Yo Ma). Everyone is clearly having a great time, and when conductor Michael Tilson Thomas joins in singing during “Ya Got Me” from On the Town, it works perfectly, like something Lenny himself might have done. It seems appropriate for a Lenny celebration that there are “high-art” singers like Upshaw and Thomas Hampson, kids from the Juilliard School, and Ebersole representing Broadway: Lenny straddled some of the traditional boundaries between the classical and popular-music worlds, tackling composing, conducting, and educating with equal fervor.
The concert is part of the city’s months-long Lenny celebration, The Best of All Possible Worlds. And I think Lenny would have approved. But you have to wonder, if he were alive, would there have been a more spontaneously combustible event? Would he have incorporated rock musicians, rappers, television actors, or, in this election year, politicians? Would somebody like Stu from Passing Strange have been invited to the party? Or Joel Klein, the New York City Schools commissioner, incorporated into “Officer Krupke”? I’m not sure what it would have been, but Lenny’s need to embrace more, more, more surely would have included some kind of surprise, extra-musical element.
I keep thinking of something the conductor/composer/lecturer Rob Kapilow said to me last spring about Lenny. “You could feel he really wanted audiences to get it. Bernstein was a teacher at heart. He once said that if he hadn’t been a musician, he would have been a rabbi.” Kapilow commented that it was a “huge disappointment” to Bernstein that despite his years of work as an educator, the great music he loved was not making its way to every child in America.
In a way, Lenny was a brand the way that Oprah or Jon Stewart are brands. The product he sold was music, and people wanted to “buy” it because he made it seem so extraordinary. As much as the Carnegie concert is a feel-good event for those of us who are already in the Bernstein club, I wonder, how many people will actually watch this concert? Who can make people outside our field sit up and take notice? Will anyone ever be able to fill the Lenny void? At the moment, my vote’s on Gustavo Dudamel, the phenom 27-year-old Venezuelan conductor who is coming to town in two weeks to lead the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on November 16th and 17th. Those will certainly be don’t-miss events, if you can get a ticket.