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Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Thank You Lenny!

Every now and again I need a break, even from the things about which I'm passionate. So last week I stopped reading about psychotherapy and mental health and took 'time out' to read Humphrey Burton's biography of the American composer, concert pianist and conductor, Leonard Bernstein. What a great man! What a great life! Wikipedia provides a summary of Bernstein's achievements here and you can see and hear him conducting some of the symphonies of Mahler at my page here

Burton's biography is a fairly satisfying read that catalogues Bernstein's conducting and composing; his  friendships and sexual relationships, with men and women; his political activities, fund raising, teaching and broadcasting. Bernstein was so talented that he risked dissipating his powers on numerous different  projects. His mentors, including the composer Aaron Copland and the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, pushed him towards conducting and indeed he was a fabulous conductor, one of the greats. His interpretations of Mahler are wonderful, possibly because he identified so closely with the man, another conductor/composer. But at the end of his life Bernstein wished he had spent more time composing. Bernstein's works include several Broadway hits, including West Side Story; a couple of operas, three symphonies and, a favourite of mine, the delightful operetta, Candide.

Bernstein's father reluctantly paid for Lenny's piano lessons and reluctantly paid also for Lenny to study music at Harvard. When quizzed about this later in life he would say, "How did I know my son was going to become Leonard Bernstein?" Leonard Bernstein was a handsome young man and had numerous relationships with men and women before eventually marrying the Chilean actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre. In 1976 and feeling he could no longer suppress his sexuality Bernstein left his wife and committed himself to a gay relationship. He was returning to his marriage when Felicia was diagnosed with cancer, she died in 1978. When she died Bernstein was heartbroken and never recovered from his loss. He was, however, able to live more openly as a gay man. He enjoyed the company of young men, surrounding himself with young students and musicians in thrall to the maestro.

Burton suggests that Bernstein became more rebellious, maybe even coarse after his wife's death. It did his reputation no harm and may have added to the Bernstein mythology. Bernstein was a compulsive smoker - at rehearsals he would on occasion conduct the orchestra with a cigarette! It killed him in the end, in 1990, aged 72. I was saddened then overwhelmed by emotion as I turned the page and saw the picture there of Bernstein on a New York street waving at the camera, a smile on his handsome face. A complex man who left behind so much wonderful music. Thank you Lenny!

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