Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
BY ELINOR LIPMAN
It might have been our Merrimack Valley connection — I was born in Lowell, Mass., and he in neighboring Lawrence — or simple pride in Jews on TV (Sandy Koufax, Michael Landon, Steve Allen, Groucho Marx, Gertrude Berg). But mostly the draw was how Leonard Bernstein spoke directly to me at home on Cascade Avenue, live from Carnegie Hall. In a family that had no hi-fi, no stereo, just an FM radio and classical leanings, I was put before our black-and-white TV to watch Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, which CBS began broadcasting in 1958. My most memorable moment was when a child in the audience (Imagine living in New York! Imagine sitting so close to the stage!) asked Bernstein how Beethoven could have composed such beautiful music if he was deaf. Think about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” our teacher said, then turned around and played its first seven notes (barely turned around — unlike me, he could play by ear without looking at the keys). “You can hear it in your head, can’t you?” he asked us. “Well, Beethoven could hear the notes in his head, too.”
Almost fifty years later, what other lesson from a television show do I remember? None. And what was my attention based on? Not professional dreams. (When my piano teacher had what used to be called a nervous breakdown, she winnowed her students down to a list that didn’t include me.) Not Bernstein’s wild exuberance on the podium, because my father, whose opinions I was prone to adopt, found Bernstein too theatrical. My loyalty was something closer to a biographical infatuation that a little Jewish girl might have for a celebrated Massachusetts man with humble roots who played his first notes on a secondhand upright piano.
Decades later, I let Tom Wolfe’s brilliant, scathing, and hilarious book of essays, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, tarnish Mr. Bernstein in my affections. “Radical Chic” describes a cocktail party at the Bernsteins’ thirteen-room duplex apartment on Park Avenue, its goal to introduce the Beautiful People to the Black Panther Party and perhaps aid their cause. Wolfe quotes Black Panther speaker Donald Cox lecturing, “Our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton, has said if we can’t find a meaningful life ... maybe we can have a meaningful death ... and one reason the power structure fears the Black Panthers is that they know the Black Panthers are ready to die for what they believe in, and a lot of us have already died.”
“Lenny seems like a changed man,” Wolfe continues. “He looks up at Cox and says, ‘When you walk into this house, into this building’ — and he gestures vaguely as if to take it all in, the moldings, the sconces, the Roquefort morsels rolled in crushed nuts, the servants, the elevator attendant and the doormen downstairs in their white dickeys, the marble lobby, the brass struts on the marquee out front — ‘when you walk into this house, you must feel infuriated!’ Cox looks embarrassed. ‘No, man ... I manage to overcome that ... That’s a personal thing ...’
“‘Well,’ says Lenny, ‘it makes me mad!’”
Uh-oh. Did I let his noblesse oblige color my portrait of the great man? I’m afraid I did during my judgmental 1970s.
Now I say, so what? His record shows energy, generosity, genius, and selflessness. A normal Bernstein Saturday, as reproduced on his handwritten calendar page for December 1, 1956, reads, “11 a.m. Young People’s Concert at Carnegie. 8 p.m. Candide opening.”
I live across the street from Carnegie when I’m in New York, in the very apartment building where Bernstein wrote West Side Story. For months the opening bars of “Somewhere” (“There’s a place for us ...”) — background music for an oft-running TIAA-CREF commercial — brought tears to my eyes. I always knew you’d end up here, the anthem seemed to say. &
Leonard Bernstein was only 25 years old when he first took a turn as conductor at the New York Philharmonic. Find out more about the life and times of this American master.