A souvenir of Lenny

LENOX — Get ready. The Leonard Bernstein remembrance machine is coming down the road, rumbling toward Tanglewood in the worldwide commemoration of the centenary of the master's birth.

In a preview of things to come, the dying Bernstein and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra are featured in recently rediscovered video footage now available online. You can see them rehearsing the second movement of Copland's Symphony No. 3 for performance during the waning weeks of the 1990 Tanglewood season.                                                                                                                                                           

That concert, and a Boston Symphony Orchestra sequel that Bernstein conducted five days later, were the last concerts he ever conducted. He died six weeks later at 72. Copland, his colleague and friend, died at 90 two months after that.                                                                                                                                            

The 44-minute video, made by Boston's WGBH, is the first in a series of recordings, interviews and other archival materials being posted as "The Bernstein Experience" on the website Classical.org. The initial release is both an inspiring and a dispiriting affair.                                                                                                         

To beat Copland's ideas into music, the shrunken, bloated Bernstein struggles against his infirmities and the players' uncertainties. As he starts the session, you hear him compare his troubles to Job's. "If it isn't one thing," he mutters, "it's another." The playing is rough, the tempos slow even by Bernstein standards.               

Humphrey Burton sets the scene in his Bernstein biography: "At the first rehearsal of Copland's Third Symphony many of the students were tired after a party the night before and unfamiliar with the Copland idiom. Bernstein became so testy that he asked Mark Stringer [an assistant], who was attending Tanglewood as an auditor, to take over. During the next two days Stringer licked the symphony into shape. Bernstein resumed work after a three-day rest and it seemed as if he had turned a corner."                                                                                                                                                                

It was a miracle, in fact. The concert performance, played in the Shed on a Tuesday night, burned with the kind of concentrated passion and conviction that only Bernstein could muster. (A promised second video will show the rehearsal of the last movement, with its "Fanfare for the Common Man" introduction.)                         

The video release comes amid a wave of commemorative concerts recalling Bernstein's 1918 birth in Lawrence, Mass., to a distributor of women's beauty products and his wife. The musical outpouring, which has included performances of Bernstein's three symphonies by the New York Philharmonic, points toward this summer's season-long Tanglewood tribute. Thirteen Bernstein works, including Broadway shows - several to be staged - and concert pieces, will be performed by the BSO, TMC students and guest artists.                    

In that fateful 1990 summer, Bernstein came to Tanglewood a few weeks after what Burton calls an "ignominious retreat" from Japan. He had gone there to found the Pacific Music Festival, a school and concert series modeled on Tanglewood. Despite extra care by both American and Japanese attendants, he collapsed in his hotel suite and had to be flown home. The festival lives on.                                                            

Bernstein died on Oct. 14 of a series of bronchial-related ailments stemming from his heavy smoking habit. Conducting the BSO in the Koussevitzky Memorial Concert on the Sunday after the TMC program, he was so weakened that he had to turn over the performance of his own "Arias and Barcarolles" to Carl St. Clair, another assistant.                                                                                                                                            

The program, captured on a Deutsche Grammophon CD, was even more memorably troubled. In a halting performance — also slow even by Bernstein standards — of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 as the finale, he broke down in the third movement in a coughing fit that forced him to stop conducting altogether and leave the BSO to its own devices.                                                                                                                                  

When he tottered off the stage after finishing the performance, it seemed clear he would never conduct again. A post-season tour of Europe with the TMC Orchestra had to be canceled and the students sent home, along with alumni who had gathered for a 50th reunion of the inaugural TMC (then Berkshire Music Center) class. No conductor before or since has been accorded the honor of a possible tour with the student orchestra.          Bernstein was a member of that inaugural class. It was then that he became Koussevitzky's protege, met and befriended Copland, and went on to the kind of career as conductor, composer, educator and all-round celebrity that earned him worldwide celebration as, in absentia, he turns 100.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions