Alex Ross on Leonard Bernstein

The New Yorker, December 15, 2008

Of Bernstein conducting Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection," Ross writes:

At the climax of the first movement, the brass unleash militant chords that turn fearsomely dissonant, while a scale grinds downward in the remainder of the orchestra. The sequence ends with a violently plunging octave figure. I remember Bernstein flinging down his arms to produce it. On the recording, you can hear the echo sail down the nave of the cathedral, like a hammer thrown with enormous force.

The moment exemplifies Bernstein's ability to render almost any abstract sequence of notes or chords as a physical act, a sweatily human gesture. . . . 

The American gesture. American Expressionism. Abstraction as a physical act, a "sweatily human gesture."


Of Bernstein's democratic taste and global syntax:

In childhood, Bernstein was an omnivorous consumer of music, blissfully unaware of the distinctions between high and low, elite and pop. He happily took in Gilbert and Sullivan, Yiddish folk songs, Beethoven symphonies, Chopin nocturnes, jazz, bel-canto opera, dissonant modernism, and more or less everything else. Children tend to listen this way--they solemnly chant commercial jingles and dance giddily to Bach. Bernstein's genius was never to let go of his boyish avidity, and to combine it with an analytic awareness of how disparate styles fit together. He had an X-ray-like ability to perceive melodic kinships beneath sonic surfaces, and in his ambitious Norton Lectures, of 1973, he attempted to construct a global syntax of music, along the lines of Noam Chomsky's structural linguistics. The theory can be picked apart, but Bernstein's compositional practice goes some way toward proving it.

American omnivorous and innocent consumption. Beethoven as opposed to Bach. Avidity and analysis. Melodic kinships beneath sonic surfaces. A global syntax of music, akin to the Glass Bead Game. Practice as partial but sufficient proof. 


On the man:

A man genetically incapable of saying anything but what he really meant, he presents a rude challenge to the attitude of professional caution that now prevails in so many precincts of the arts--the aesthetic of avoiding entanglements, of looking over one's shoulder, of perpetually hedging one's bets. In a culture of cynical chic, Bernstein teaches the power of impassioned affirmation. His 1973 Norton lectures--titled "The Unanswered Question," after Charles Ives--end with a concise credo: "I'm no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is Yes."

Impassioned affirmation--yes, like Beethoven, even at the risk of sentimentality. 


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