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Yesterday, I accidentally came across a YouTube video of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the finale of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, which is one of the composer’s bounciest, most ebullient movements, and therefore one of the bounciest, most ebullient in all music. And I was transfixed: After a tiny initial tempo beat with the baton, the conductor dropped his arms and stood there, letting the orchestra play the entire movement, indicating directions entirely with facial expressions. (Link here). 

He was conducting with his face. It was brilliant. Every fleeting emotion played across his face, as if he were the music. And each expression came a half-second before the orchestra reacted, so Bernstein wasn’t following the music, but leading it. Extraordinary. It was one of the best performances of that finale I’ve ever heard, with a naturalness and clarity, but more important, a joy and spontaneity. 

I go back a long way with Lenny. When I was a mere bairn, I watched him on the Young People’s Concerts and I remember his explanation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Omnibus TV show. I was just six years old in 1954, so I don’t remember much of what he said, but I remember the set, with the score of the symphony on the floor, so he could position his players on their staffs to show what they were doing. I was fascinated. 

Since then, Lenny has been a part of my life. Sometimes a small part, in the background, sometimes I spent extra money to buy one of his recordings over a cheaper Turnabout or Vox recording, with the trust that I would be rewarded by something special. I usually was. 

I heard Lenny conduct at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall, now David Geffen Hall — it changes as much as the names on ballparks). I remember a rousing version of Debussy’s La Mer with the New York Phil. But mostly, I heard Lenny via recordings, first LP and then CD. There were also videos and TV presentations. 

I don’t deny that Lenny talking could be hard to take, with that resonant basso voice that he seemed to be in love with, and sometimes a ham actor’s thesbianicity. But if you can get past that surface, what he says is almost always revelatory, precise, and true. I listen to his Harvard lectures over and over, and despite some tedious Chomskian linguistic folderol, really insightful. (He drops the Chomsky in the latter lectures, thank god). 

But it is the music that really counts. For many, Bernstein was the great podium presence of the second half of the 20th century. The singer Christa Ludwig, who performed with Lenny often, once said she worked with three truly great conductors: Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Bernstein, but the difference was, she said, “Bernstein was a genius.” 

Others have commented that when he conducted, he “became” the music. A member of the Vienna Philharmonic told my old friend, the late music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky, “Name one other conductor who, just by standing in front of the orchestra, could make them play better than they thought they could.” Bernstein seemed to have a special relationship with the Vienna Phil, and many of his later recordings were with them.

Lenny had his detractors, who thought he was showing off in front of the audience and orchestra, or that he exaggerated details, or — especially later in his career — dragged tempos. But, as critic David Hurwitz has said many times, “Every time I think Bernstein has distorted something, I look in the score and see that it is exactly what the composer had notated. He was truer to the score than almost any other conductor I know.” 

It is true that for Lenny, as for Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” But the best recordings have something to give that few others can match: commitment, power, emotion, persuasiveness. 

I have chosen 10 of Lenny’s recordings that for me summarize his best. There are many others. He was especially great with Haydn, with Beethoven, with Mahler, with Stravinsky, with Shostakovich. And Modern music — if it was tonal or polytonal, like Milhaud — he made it all just bounce. 

We’ll start with Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, that is symphonies Nos. 82-87, including “The Hen” and “The Bear.” It is pretty well consensus that Bernstein’s Paris Symphonies are the reference recordings. Sprightly, bright, witty, energetic and beautifully played. Bernstein was always good in Haydn, and I would have listed his Creation here, or his Nelson Mass or Tempore Belli Mass. You can’t go wrong with Bernstein and Haydn. In comparison, almost everyone else just feels soggy. 

In roughly chronological order, we come to one of his most controversial recordings ever: the live recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein substituted the word “Freiheit” (“freedom”) for Schiller’s “Freude” (“joy”) in the finale, caught up in the moment’s exhilaration over the fall of East Berlin and Communism. Actually, he only does it once, and later reverts back to the original. But it is jarring when you hear the baritone intone it at the start of the finale. Yet, I am listening to it now as I write this and it is an absolutely thrilling version of the Beethoven’s greatest symphony. Members of six different orchestras came together and meld perfectly under Lenny’s baton. It is my go-to version of the symphony. It is a symphony played so often (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it live) that it has lost some of its magic as occasion, but here, it magnifies that sense of occasion. Despite the mutilation of the “Freiheit,” but because of the intensity and emotional engagement of the 20-minute Adagio — more like a prayer than anything else. (Roger Norrington takes it in 10 minutes of throw-away carelessness.) 

Then, there’s Berlioz’s Grande Messe de Morts, or Requiem. There are few decent recordings, and most fail for exactly the same reason: They attempt to make sense of the thing, toning it down into something “normal.” That is the issue with Colin Davis’ version. But Lenny lets it all hang out. What is fevered and hysterical, comes across as fevered and hysterical, just as Berlioz wrote it. 

If there is any symphony from the 19th century more Haydnesque than Bizet’s Symphony in C, I have yet to discover it. It is fresh, bright, tuneful and unendingly happy. The composer wrote it in 1855, when he was 17, and it remained unplayed until 1935 and I feel pity for all those audiences who, for 80 years could have been enjoying it, but never had the chance. Lenny was the perfect conductor for its joie de vivre and rhythmic snap. It is as if Bizet wrote it with Bernstein in mind. 

Lenny recorded Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony at least twice, once with the New York Philharmonic, in 1964 for Columbia, and then again in 1987 for Deutsche Grammophon, with the same orchestra. What a difference. The first — an excellent version — takes about the usual 45 minutes. The second comes in at just a chip under an hour. Most of that extra time comes in the finale, which in the second recording is wrenching and heartbreaking. One critic wrote that it “devastates the emotions. … At the end of the last movement, the despair is complete.” Of course, the performance has its detractors, with some finding it distended and, as one always hears the complaint against Lenny, “is more about the conductor than the composer.” Poppycock. This is Tchaikovsky titrated and distilled into pure essence. 

Lenny recorded Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring many times, also, but there is no quibbling about the one to go to. It is his first, from 1958 with the New York Phil. When the composer first heard the recording, his only response was “Wow!” Lots of conductors have the measure of the Rite, but there is a rhythmic vitality, a violence and explosiveness to the 1958 recording that has never been matched, even by Lenny. 

Just seven years after Stravinsky’s blast, came Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit (“The Bull on the Roof”), which he says he wrote as “fifteen minutes of music, rapid and gay, as a background to any Charlie Chaplin silent movie.” It is a piling up of Brazilian tunes, in several keys at once, and is as bright and toe-tappy as anything. Indeed, it becomes an ear-worm and you will be hearing its tunes over and over in your head for the rest of the day. The Bernstein recording also features La Création du Monde from 1923, which is a fully realized jazz composition for a ballet about an African creation story. This is Lenny in his element. You can just see him dancing on the podium with happiness and joy. 

Then, there is another highly controversial recording — his DG performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Lenny, playing the piano part himself, plays it not as a jazz riff, but as if it were, from bottom-to-top, a classical piano concerto, rather like Ravel’s Concerto in G. Critics miss the easy jazzy element of famous performances by Earl Wilde or Oscar Levant, but Bernstein’s version seems to those who adore it (as I do) as a perfectly genuine alternate view. And it is gorgeous. Did I mention that? Absolutely gorgeous. 

Dimitri Shostakovich wrote his massive Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” during the German siege of that city in 1942. It is a piece that defeats many orchestras and conductors; it is very difficult to keep it from diffusing into long, undigested sections. Lenny keeps it going as a single directional line from beginning to glorious end, and the Chicago Symphony has the cojones to perform what is asked of them. Almost everyone agrees, this is the Leningrad Symphony to hear. 

Finally, I’ve kept last (and out of order), Mahler, which sometimes seems like Bernstein’s personal property. It isn’t, of course, but he brings something special to his Mahler performances, and none more so than with the Ninth, which he recorded at least six times (1965 NY Phil; 1971 Vienna Phil; 1979 Berlin Phil; 1979 Boston Symphony; 1985 Concertgebouw; 1985 Israel Phil). It is perhaps the Mahler symphony Bernstein felt closest to. Only four of these are genuine releases, not bootlegs, and among them it is hard to choose, but I suppose I migrate to the late Concertgebouw recording. Berlin has the intensity, but there is a major cock-up in the finale when the trombone section failed to play in the climax (apparently an audience member had died of a heart attack directly behind the brass section and there was some commotion that distracted the players). But listening to any one of them seems as if the music becomes more than music; it is a direct communication from one soul or heart to another. There are other great performances of the Ninth — it seems to draw out the best in most conductors — but there is something extra in the Bernstein versions, something more immediate, more direct. 

That is a list of 10 (or more), but I feel I’ve left out so much. There’s his Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste; there’s two complete surveys of Beethoven symphonies; there’s his Copland, his Ives, his Schumann, his Sibelius. And so much more. But I believe the 10 I’ve chosen are not just great, but peculiar to Lenny — and I choose the word carefully. He was an idiosyncratic conductor, but all the personality that went in to his performances meant they are often memorable in a way more straightforward ones are not. 

Many moons ago, when I was a snotty college kid, I went through a period of disdaining Lenny. I bought the canard that he was shallow, heart-on-sleeve and bombastic. I wuz a idjit. One should never let the opinions of others block your ears. There is a world of difference between words and sounds, and the sounds are always more meaningful. I am older now, have experienced a great deal more of living, discovered depths in myself I hadn’t understood, and now Lenny’s insistence on finding the marrow is what I value. My ears are opened to what is gifted to me. 

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cletus spuckler and wife

There is little science on the Science Channel, almost no history on the History Channel, nothing to discover on Discover, and you will look long and hard to find any art on the Arts and Entertainment network.

And if you learn anything from The Learning Channel, it is that America’s intellectual level has dropped from the sky like a disabled alien spacecraft, to crash and burn in a desert of mindlessness.

The History Channel, for instance, now specializes in (as explained on Wikipedia): “mythical creatures, monsters, UFOs, aliens, truck drivers, alligator hunters, pawn stores, antique and collectible ‘pickers,’ car restoring, religions, disaster scenarios, and apocalyptic ‘after man’ scenarios,” to say nothing about credulous explorations of the writings of Nostradamus. ancient aliens

Each of these channels began with virtuous motives, and for their early years, created or acquired genuine documentaries for TV viewers, but as they have come to seek ratings over virtue, each has bitten the bait, and now gives us “reality” programming, sensationalist pseudoscience, and celebrities, celebrities, celebrities.

The prime offender of this last are the cooking and food channels, which at one time gave us instruction on cooking and food, but now concentrate on celebrity chefs, some even with studio audiences to applaud and ooh. Julia Child actually taught us something. david pogue

And it isn’t just that Bravo or A&E have given us the bait-and-switch, but that even once laudable programming on PBS has been dumbed down to provide more “entertainment” and less hard information. Their once-proud flagship program NOVA has become a showcase for the high-jinx of such “info-comics” as David Pogue, “Destroyer of Brain Cells.”

It is as if no one believes that actual history or science or art can hold its own in a world of Gypsy housewives of LA married to lumberjacks who look for gold in Alaska and find Nazi ghosts piloting flying saucers from the future, as predicted by Nostradamus.

(Note to Discovery: I now have a copyright on that idea, in case you decide to make such a series.)

I have no complaints with science writers who make complex and often mathematically dense material comprehensible for laymen, such as myself. That is what NOVA used to do: It was aimed at intelligent non-scientists, people with an interest but without the background and training; it now seems aimed at Cletus Spuckler and his family of slack-jawed yokels from The Simpsons.

Is it any wonder that American students fail so badly in math and science, or that a scary percentage of American voters don’t believe in basic scientific principles, and that a major political party carries on a non-too-disguised war on science? We believe in ghosts, UFOs, and ESP, but not in evolution, global warming or environmental degradation. One scratches one’s head.

At least PBS still maintains a veneer of science or history in their documentaries, the commercial cable channels have given up completely. It is all hokum shot through night-vision goggles looking for trumped up ghosts, or teams of competing slackers moaning and groaning about how hard it is to beat the deadline making spangles for their dresses or how to turn squid beaks into desserts for the panel of judges. TLC

How is America not embarrassed to show its face in the world for presenting Toddlers and Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, I Eat 33,000 Calories A Day, Potty Power, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Starter Wives Confidential, Trading Spouses, Wedding Dress Wars, or Big Hair Alaska? And those are just from Discovery.

The History Channel (now, of course, rebranded as History, keeping the only part of their name that doesn’t describe anything true about itself) has offered: Ancient Aliens, Ancients Behaving Badly, Angels and Demons: Decoded, Ax Men, The Bible Code: Predicting Armegeddon, Big Shrimpin’, Cajun Pawn Stars, Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, God, Guns and Automobiles, Hairy Bikers, Ice Road Truckers, Shark Wranglers, Swamp People, and, of course, UFO HuntersPawn Stars photographed by Blair Bunting

Its highest-rated show, Pawn Stars, exemplifies one of the unpleasant trends in this new field of television.  So many “reality” shows (I can’t help but put quotes around the word “reality,” since the word is so horribly misused in this application) rely on having a bully at its center, whether it was Simon Cowell on American Idol or here, with “Old Man” Richard Harrison, a truly repulsive ignorant blusterer lording it over his clan like a cartoon patriarch, an uneducated know-it-all, with little sense of curiosity — there is no glow in his ball-bearing eyes, just the dull, yellowish glare of a sluggish dragon guarding its horde.

So much of TV is either aimed at or about the unwashed, uneducated and superstitious, as if all of America lived in a trailer park and had only half its teeth. It’s the Jerry-Springerization of America, and it cannot bode well for our future.

So, the rest of us find ourselves either leaving TV altogether, or braving the ridicule of our friends and family, tuning in to C-Span 2 on the weekends to watch Book TV. It’s the last bastion of a medium that used to bring us Omnibus, Young People’s Concerts and BBC nature programs.

 

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I want to acknowledge a debt. It comes as a bit of an ugly confession. And it comes wrenchingly from my throat: I write a great deal about books and poetry. I spout Roman history a little too glibly and am apt to swoon glowingly about Homer’s Iliad.

But I must acknowledge that the high tone of fine art and literature is only a patina. I have been most hewn and polished not by literary sources, but by television. It is the same for most people under the age of 65.

Television is not often enough considered when we talk about intellectual development; it actually hurts to put the words ”intellectual” and ”television” in the same sentence — and I just did it twice. I’m a masochist.

But it is true. My first introduction to classical music was on the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched on the box. First introduction to jazz from the added soundtrack to the silent Terrytoons I saw on Junior Frolics, an afternoon kiddie show on New Jersey’s Channel 13, hosted by “Uncle” Fred Sayles. Those silent-era animations, with their added jazz scores influenced my youth in a way that Aeschylus would never be able to.

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My first theater came in the form of sitcoms; first sculpture was the Rodin Thinker that Dobie Gillis sat under to question why he could never make time with Thalia Menninger.

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Oh, there were a few ”highbrow” things on the tube: Sometimes we watched Omnibus with Alistair Cook or the Young People’s Concerts with Leonard Bernstein.

Nevertheless, the effect of such educational shows was as a single tiny green pea to the overwhelming harvest of corn that poured out of the box.

Bonanza, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Ozzie and Harriet, Dave Garroway’s meaty palm held forward to the screen as he intoned the word, ”Peace.”

I learned about animals from Ivan Sanderson and, later, Marlin Perkins. I learned about Eastern Europe from Boris Badinov. It all twirled around in a great pop-culture spin cycle.

It’s frightening to think how much American history was gathered from watching Hugh O’Brian as Wyatt Earp or Guy Madison as Wild Bill Hickok.

It is all still there, like petroleum under the covering layers of rock. If I dig deep enough, the Tacitus recedes and Sky King comes back to the fore.

But it isn’t mere nostalgia that I mean to invoke, but rather a change that has come about as television has come of age.

What distinguishes the generation that came after mine — those called ”X” to my ”boomer” — is the quotes that have now been put around everything that appears on the screen.

Television was new to us. We approached it naively. What we saw on its glowing front we took to be an image of the real world. Those that came after us were enormously more sophisticated about what they saw. Television was for them clearly an ironic ”parallel universe,” which they somehow lived in, used for their cultural reference point, but never took seriously.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was not exactly the world I inhabited, but it bore a close enough resemblance to it that I could read it as ”real.” Ozzie really was married to Harriet.

By the time The Brady Bunch came on, it so deviated from the reality of its viewers that the only way to enjoy it was as an in-joke.

victory at sea

My generation learned about World War II from Victory at Sea; the following generation learned from Hogan’s Heroes.

There are many a plus and beaucoup minuses to both sides of the generational equation. It is usually better to be sophisticated than naive. I’m mortified that I ever thought that Gene Autry really was a cowboy.

But the downside for the later generation is the disconnect they make between life and art. For them, culture is a web of references they get, the way you either get or don’t get Stephen Colbert. If you suggest to them that art might somehow mirror their daily existence and confront the questions that arise outside the TV world, they look at you like you just suggested Larry the Cable Guy should be the next James Bond.

If we have all become much more knowing about the apparatus of media, we are also in danger of drowning in that world in a kind of cultural schizophrenia, and forgetting that the world that counts is found outside prime time.