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Book Review

Conversations about Bernstein

Conversations about Bernstein by Burton
William Westbrook Burton (ed. and introduction)
New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1995
ISBN-10: 0195079477
ISBN-13: 978-0195079470
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Thin.

I have no idea whom this book serves. However, it looked promising – a series of interviews with composers, conductors, performers, theater collaborators, and orchestral members who knew and worked with the protean talent of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein knew and was friendly with some high-powered people. Many of them, however, don't make it into the book, and enlightenment flickers only fitfully.

"Complicated" describes both Bernstein's personality and his place in American music. The book captures very little of it. The best stuff comes from Lukas Foss and the late Jerry Hadley. Carol Lawrence gives a detailed account of West Side Story rehearsals, but little about Bernstein emerges other than his encouragement of her. Harold Schonberg and Joan Peyser might as well not have wasted their time (and ours). Schonberg talks about the effects of his generally hostile criticism of Bernstein's conducting (conclusion: not much). Joan Peyser shows the same lack of musical and critical understanding that marked her lame Bernstein biography. If you read this book, you would learn that Bernstein wrote only one lasting work – West Side Story – made no classic recordings, and in general threw away his talent.

Well, that's one point of view, of course, and it may even coincide with current wisdom. The problem with it, however, is that these things come across as pronouncements from on high, rather than from an argument. Jonathan Miller, a director I admire, dislikes Bernstein's music for its "Jewish" show-biz sentimentality, but unfortunately he backs it up with nothing specific. So it seems to proceed from an a priori animus, a predisposition, rather than from an engagement with the material itself. I don't begrudge Miller his opinion, but I do want more meat on the bones. I say the same for most of the interviews. Is Bernstein's masterpiece West Side Story because that's what everybody knows or because its quality stands out from every other piece he wrote? What distinguishes it from the first two symphonies, the Serenade, Trouble in Tahiti, Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, Dybbuk, Chichester Psalms, Songfest, or On the Town? That is, what distinguishes it, other than its popularity? At one point, someone (I've repressed who) makes the point that nobody other than Bernstein performs Bernstein, despite obvious evidence (like recordings and the careers of other interviewees) to the contrary. This is nothing more than hogswallop masquerading as Hochkultur.

All in all, reading so light that it blows away in a mild breeze.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz.