by EVAN LEWIS
Leonard Bernstein is a complicated artist to reckon with. Composer, conductor, teacher, activist, father, cultural figure– the word “polymath” seems designed specifically to try and find a small word to wrap all of his roles into one.
The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s exhibit Leonard Bernstein at 100 runs through January 26, 2020. Curated by the GRAMMY Museum in LA, The New York Public Library, and members of the Bernstein family, the exhibit chronologically illustrates the conductor’s life through photos, documents, mementos, and, most successfully, film clips of his performances. It’s a great exhibit for those who already know a lot about the Maestro (as LB is often referred to, in honor of his amazing conducting career), or those who are learning about him for the first time.
In the interest of full disclosure: when I lived in NYC 15 years ago, fresh out of college, the first job I got was as the administrative assistant at The Leonard Bernstein Office, the organization that manages his estate; and after that I became the personal assistant to the man who had been LB’s personal assistant, Jack Gottlieb. So to say that I feel like I have heard a lot of his music, thought a lot about his life, and generally been in a musical world with Bernstein always as a presence over my shoulder is a bit of an understatement. I ended up being asked to write this review without any of this being known; just one of those happy, musical accidents. Portland’s a small town, you always have to be on your best behavior because you never know who you’ll run into!
The exhibit starts with an overview of his early years– letters, photos, childhood in Boston– and then you enter a room where each display focuses on a different part of his music and career. Musically, it’s hard to mentally wrap your mind around the boundaries of his creative output and varied styles. Somehow it seems almost comical to remember one composer was responsible for On The Town, Candide, West Side Story, MASS, Symphony 2: The Age of Anxiety, Clarinet Sonata, etc. etc. etc. Bernstein by all accounts was someone hungry to experience all facets of life– read Jamie Bernstein’s excellent memoir Famous Father Girl for more anecdotes about that– and his catalogue of works shows that character trait in action. Musicals, operas, film scores, “serious” concert works, rock-inflected works, musical lectures– there is no genre he didn’t dabble in.
Last weekend, his daughter Jamie Bernstein was in town to speak about her memoir at the museum, and later that afternoon to introduce Portland’s own Bravo Youth Orchestra in a concert at the museum. Bravo is a proud part of El Sistema, and is dedicated to musical education with the mission to “transform the lives of underserved youth through intensive orchestral music instruction emphasizing collaboration, promoting self-confidence, and creating a community where children thrive.” Ms. Bernstein now, in a surprise to herself, does a lot of music education work in the vein of her father’s Young Peoples’ Concerts, so this musical meeting was a perfect fit. One item in the exhibit is a baton of Bernstein’s that he conducted Mahler with; it was loaned to Gustavo Dudamel, the most famous graduate of El Sistema, for a Mahler performance of his own. Long story short, he ended up snapping the baton at the end of the work, to his great distress. The snapped baton is on display.
In wandering through the exhibit with Ms. Bernstein, I asked her what her favorite item in the exhibit was. Without pausing, she marched into the first room, planted her feet, and pointed decisively at what looked to be a torture device. “This, this is my favorite,” she said.
From a distance, it’s hard to discern what this medusa tangle of wires even is, but it is, of course, a Frederics Permanent Wave machine. Bernstein’s father Samuel had emigrated to the US from Ukraine and got into the beauty product business in Massachusetts, eventually becoming the exclusive seller of this machine of beauty/torture to salons in the Northeast. The sales of this machine made Sam’s hair and beauty supply business a big success, and Sam always wanted his son to join him and, eventually, to take it over. Sam wouldn’t pay for music lessons for his son, believing that music wasn’t a stable career (I mean…he’s not exactly wrong) and that he should continue on his father’s legacy of providing perms to the women of Boston. After his son had become a worldwide phenomenon, Sam was asked by a reporter why he had refused to pay for piano lessons. The elder Bernstein replied, “Well, how was I supposed to know he’d turn out to be Leonard Bernstein?”
I asked her at the end of the exhibit if she had a favorite piece of music by him. She said MASS held a special place in her heart since it seemed to have so much of Bernstein himself in the music and staging, but her real answer would have to be “whatever piece I listened to last.” It is certainly true that he is hard to pigeonhole, and that one moment your favorite could be the Overture to Candide, and then you hear “America” from West Side Story and think that could be your favorite, and then a snippet of Serenade and you think, well….
Because the Maestro’s biography is so wide-ranging and star-studded, it’s hard for one exhibit to delve too deeply into any one aspect of his life– there really quite literally is not enough space. As a result, some of the sections feel like the CliffsNotes version of his biography– his activism is mentioned in one display, with a printout of his (lengthy) FBI file, and while that facet of him and his wife’s life could have its own exhibit, it does leave you wanting more depth, more detail about that part of his life. It’s a tricky balance to find, considering how much time could be spent on, for example, West Side Story alone, that the exhibit tries to speak to both people who know nothing at all about Bernstein as well as those familiar with his career. For the most part, the exhibit is successful in touching on all the major points of his life, and makes you want to go home and listen to everything.
In the end, when the exhibit is taken as a whole, all the items and photos and personal effects and printed anecdotes are fun to see and read and have novelty value, but only give you the outlines of the man. It is the film at the end, showing him in action as a conductor, as a performer (and, most memorably as a composer/performer at the piano playing Rhapsody in Blue) that the hairs on your arm stand up. It is then he feels most alive and vibrant and in reach– his whole body making music, coaxing sounds out of an orchestra of old men with sideburns, music that was written hundreds of years ago and performed 40 plus years ago– that draws a crowd in the museum. Everytime I walked past the screen, there were people standing in silence, watching, taking in the Maestro in action. That’s his true legacy: his ability to make music speak to everyone.
Evan Lewis, born and raised in Portland, Oregon, received his Masters in Music in composition from Mannes College, The New School (NYC) in 2008, where he was a winner of the Jean Schneider Goberman/Alaria Competition and had his orchestral work Alecto premiered at the 2008 Contemporary Music Festival by the Mannes Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Michael Adelson. He is on the board of Cascadia Composers, and has had his writings featured in the LA Chamber Orchestra newsletter, KUSC’s member guide, and social media and blog posts for other musical groups.