Mr. Bernstein and the Criticism

Leonard Bernstein got plenty of criticism.

In the elegant world of orchestral conducting, Mr. Bernstein was an arm-flinging, hip-shaking, jack-knifing, bucket-sweating force of nature on the conductor’s podium.

He was a man of big feeling. For which he was unapologetic. “Life without music is unthinkable,” he wrote in 1967. “Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.”

Mr. Bernstein – who smoked a lot, drank a lot, wore his buttoned shirts unbuttoned, signed his letters, ‘Lenny’ – led the New York Philharmonic through a record-breaking, seat-filling 1,246 performances. And for each, he stood up on the conductor’s podium with a sense of timing, of wildness, of purpose.

Many loved his total embrace. And many did not.

“Bernstein’s footwork was magnificent,” Harold Schonberg once wrote for The New York Times. “But one did wish there was more music and less exhilaration.”

“Emoting above and beyond any call, Bernstein acted out a series of virtuosic charades,” was one of Martin Bernheimer’s depictions for the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Bernstein, being a man of big feeling, felt many things about criticism.

“I have been hurt and I have been overjoyed by it,” he said. “And I have been bored by it and I have been incensed, but mostly not embittered.”

Because while Mr. Bernstein was a man with big feeling, he was also a man with a sense of timing. Not just of music. But of life and the things that endure in it.

And of criticism, Mr. Bernstein concluded simply: “None of this has lasted. It is all ephemeral.”

But what would last – across 1,246 performances – was Mr. Bernstein standing up on the podium. And conducting music with a total embrace.

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