Lenny at large

Writing about the Leonard Bernstein letters for the NYRB (he’s lukewarm) Robert Gottlieb takes time out to watch a vintage DVD of the maestro on the podium:

Look at him up there, facing a cadre of highly disciplined, impeccably groomed Englishmen. (Not many women in the LSO in those days.) They watch him closely, of course—is it my fantasy that they watch him as if they were in striking distance of a dangerous tiger? His behaviour to them is totally cordial and respectful—in fact, remarkably generous: hands shaken, pats on the shoulder, warm smiles. If he isn’t happy with their playing, you’d never know it.

But have they ever worked with a conductor not only this legendary but this over the top? It’s not just his notorious bouncing up and down. He grins, he grimaces, he thrusts and spasms; the emotional climaxes of the music are reflected on his face—he’s thrilled with excitement one moment, anguished the next. He nods and sways. He sweats. He mouths along with the music. Since he conducts without a score—his musical memory is famous—his inner concentration is unbroken. If a tragedian performed King Lear this way we’d probably hoot him off the stage. But just when we’re ready to find the whole thing risible, we begin to believe it. No, he’s not a charlatan; no, he’s not a joke. He’s a believer. It’s for real.

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