Andrew Pincus | Rambling Around Tanglewood: Bernstein's Moscow mission

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LENOX — "You have taken us up to heaven," Boris Pasternak declared. "Now we must return to earth."

The celebrated poet and author of "Doctor Zhivago" had just heard Leonard Bernstein conduct Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in Moscow with the New York Philharmonic. The concert, given in ornate Tchaikovsky Hall, was the culmination of the orchestra's 1959 Russian tour. Pasternak visited the American conductor in his dressing room afterward to express friendly appreciation. The concert marked his first public appearance since being forced by Soviet authorities to refuse the Nobel Prize.

And now, the Shostakovich Fifth has returned to Tanglewood, full of historic echoes — not all favorable.

Culminating the opening weekend in the "Celebrating Lenny at Tanglewood" summer, Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Fifth last Sunday. It is a work Bernstein conducted the BSO in eight times, five of them at Tanglewood. For good measure, the Tchaikovsky Fifth was the major work in the opening BSO concert. It had been done by Bernstein three times at Tanglewood.

In a cultural exchange during the Khrushchev-Sputnik Cold War era, the New Yorkers made the Shostakovich Fifth the centerpiece of their two-week tour to St. Petersburg, Kiev and Moscow. Bernstein, a lifetime crusader for peace and amity, regarded the trip as something more: an opportunity to build friendship between the rival countries.

He sent out shock waves from the start. The opening concert went like this:

"The audience had been excited from the beginning by Bernstein's brisk tempo for the Soviet national anthem, and by the unfamiliar sight of the conductor directing a Mozart piano concerto (K. 453, in G Major)," Humphrey Burton writes in his Bernstein biography. The New York Times reported: "But the enthusiasm rose to an almost overwhelming peak at the final great crescendo of the last number on the program, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. "

Bernstein, then 41, found Pasternak, 69, "both a saint and a galant," with "enormous warmth and great humor." In a private dinner in Pasternak's dacha, Bernstein said, "We hit it off, straight away. We talked for hours about art and the artist's view of history. "

The encounter with Pasternak, which also included a private dinner in the writer's dacha outside Moscow, was part of Bernstein's intent. Yet the Shostakovich Fifth came at an equivocal time in the composer's life. Composed in 1937 during the Stalinist purges, it followed intense criticism, apparently emanating from Stalin himself, of the composer's opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" as degenerate and anti-socialist. Having lived in fear for his life, Shostakovich composed the Fifth as "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism."

But is it? Despite its heroic tone, there is enough ambiguity — and, in the slow movement, naked grief — to hear it as a lament for lost freedom, a crushing of the human spirit under the Soviet boot. Shostakovich even withdrew his Fourth Symphony (newly recorded by Nelsons and the BSO, and on the Aug. 17 Tanglewood program) to allow the Fifth to be his apology. Wildly successful, it probably saved his life.

The tour was not without its Bernstein quirks. Though he learned scraps of Russian in preparation, he perplexed audiences with his spoken introductions — a Russian no-no — to the contemporary works to be played. He spoke in English, without an interpreter.

"Only the good manners of the hospitable public resulted in a ripple of polite applause," Burton writes.

On the other hand, with such programs, Bernstein introduced that public to such works as Ives' "The Unanswered Question" and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." He was persuaded to drop the speeches along the way, but gratified by the overall triumph of the tour.

"They want to touch me, shake my hand, embrace me, even kiss me," said Bernstein, a championship hugger himself, of the music lovers who mobbed and cheered him all the way back to his hotel. "I feel we are this much closer. Nothing else will be worth a hill of beans if we don't have peace."

If only. Bernstein thought he could bring democracy to the ruling leadership and ideology through music and the force of his personality. Musicians continue to travel back and forth between Russia and America, to the enrichment of both countries. But as we are seeing today, culture is not enough, even with a Bernstein as torch bearer. As our president tries to cozy up to Russia's virtual dictator and state oppression, it's easy to mistake the enemy. Bernstein and Shostakovich did.


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