It’s Lenny’s birthday today, and not just any birthday, his hundredth.
Like so many other composers and conductors, I spent a large portion of my teens and 20’s totally in his thrall. I watched every concert and studied every documentary. I read all the books that he wrote and the ones that were written about him. I listened to every piece (some, like MASS, every day.)
I watched all the conducting footage I could get my hands on, dissecting and imitating the tiniest details of his gestural vocabulary. His conducting remains the foundation of my own technique, embedded in my body like a second set of bones.
I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge Lenny’s great gifts and his prodigious legacy and his lasting effect on my life and career. But I’m also convinced that he’s a lot more complicated a figure than anyone seems willing to grapple with as the celebrations roll in.
Lenny (and here I’m speaking from a mountain of substantiated accounts as well as rumor and gossip) was an egregious flirt, a serial philanderer, and a deliverer of unwanted attentions and advances. Like, Bill Clinton level. He traded on sex and he would do it with anyone. Which is why I’m surprised that amid all the pomp, Lenny seems to be the one person to have totally escaped any kind of critical reappraisal in the context of the #metoo movement.
Maybe it’s that we all agree that he was simply abiding by the mores of his era, that he had an understanding with his wife, and that we’re willing to look past the scuzz to see the genius. Perhaps, as Norman Lebrecht says, it was all ok because Lenny stayed attractive to the end, unlike James Levine who got ugly (!)
But I’m afraid that what’s more likely is that there’s an awful lot of money in “Bernstein at 100”, and nobody wants to grapple with the demons. It may be that everything Lenny did was consensual, but haven’t we learned that power clouds the picture when it comes to consent? Goodness knows there was nobody more powerful in the world of classical music.
So while I salute Lenny and marvel at his talents, I think we can also look at him as an example of someone who overstepped his boundaries sometimes, and we can try to hold ourselves to a higher standard, as much as we may stumble. I think it’s possible to hold to ideas in our heads at once, and to remember that he was human too, just like the rest of us.