We went to the Austin Symphony to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade. 2018 is the 100-year celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, and so before the orchestra performed Beethoven’s 5th we were shown a short excerpt from Bernstein’s TV lecture on this symphony (watch here).
Leonard Bernstein will go down in history as a great composer. I have seen West Side Story live half a dozen times and watched the movie a few dozen times, and every single time it turns my heart upside down. Bernstein was also one of the most influential conductors of the second half of the 20th century. He was a great educator and popularizer of classical music through his educational TV series.
But most people who interacted with him remember him as Lenny, not Leonard or Mr. Bernstein. I recently read Absolutely on Music. In this book Haruki Murakami interviews Seiji Ozawa, the Japanese-born conductor who led the Boston Symphony for 25 years. Mr. Ozawa was lucky to work with two legendary conductors of the 20th Century. He studied conducting with Herbert von Karajan and was assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
In this book Ozawa warmly speaks of both of them, but when refers to Karajan it’s “maestro,” while Bernstein is just Lenny. I’ve been thinking about “Lenny” vs “Maestro” for months.
Bernstein had an incredible, magnetic personality – just look at his face; it has kindness written all over it. When you hear people talk about him, there is always a tinge of love in their voices. Musicians certainly loved him, and he did not need to wield the authority of a “maestro;” he could be just “Lenny” and exert enormous control over the orchestra.
Today I wanted to share with you Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. It is not a traditional symphony, because it uses voices in addition to instruments; thus it is called a choral symphony. Beethoven composed it when he was completely deaf. What is also interesting is that the singers, and there are lot of them, only start singing about an hour into the symphony – they stand for one hour waiting for their part to begin.
The first time I heard Beethoven’s 9th was March 8th, 1992. We had been in the US for only a few months. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra had a free admission day, and my father asked me if I want to join him to listen to the Beethoven 9th. I think I was more excited about a car ride to town than the music (I was 18). So I said yes. The funny thing is that I remember a lot more about what happened after the symphony than symphony itself. My father reminded me that it was March 8th, International Women’s Day, and that we had to buy my stepmother a present. Americans don’t celebrate Mother’s Day much, but March 8th is like Mother’s Day on steroids in Russia. It’s not just mothers who get gifts and extra appreciation from men but all women, mothers or not. Even in the schools all the boys were (more or less) required to bring gifts for the girls.
On our way home from the symphony we stopped by Target, and I bought my stepmother a $5 red umbrella. When we gave it to her, my father told her that it was my idea. It made her extra happy. Over the years I’ve given my stepmother a lot of gifts (some even cost more than $5), but for some reason this one is the one that touched her the most. Maybe she hadn’t expected it. Maybe it was because it was the first gift she received in the US. But 23 years later she still has that umbrella and treasures it. Go figure. If it was not for that umbrella, I probably wouldn’t remember that I heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on a very specific day in 1992.
A reader turned client, and more importantly a friend, shared this wonderful performance with me. On May 7th, 2015, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti, performed Beethoven’s 9th. Here is another performance of the 9th, at the Berlin Celebration Concert in 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is conducted by Leonard Bernstein, less than a year before his death.
I urge you to watch these two performances side by side (mute one of them). It is incredible to watch two completely different conducting styles. Bernstein is full of emotion; you can read the music’s impact all over his body. He is conducting not just with his hands but with every muscle of his face – even his eyebrows. Muti on the other hand is an emotionless conductor. If you turn off the sound, you don’t know whether he is conducting a wedding or a funeral march. This wonderful TED talk (I shared in the past) contrasts different conducting styles. I have watched it at least ten times.
After I wrote last week about Arthur Rubenstein, the Polish-American-Jewish pianist, a reader suggested I read Rubenstein’s autobiography, which consists of two books, My Younger Years and My Many Years. I bought both. I am halfway through the first one (it is the first “paper” book I’ve read in a few years – a very strange experience). I like it so far. It provides a great insight into the world of music in the late 19th and early 20th century in Poland and Germany (Rubenstein spent his teens in Germany) and into a life of a great pianist.
Today I want to share with you Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 5, also called the Emperor Concerto, performed by Rubenstein.
This is Beethoven’s last piano concerto. He was working on it during a very difficult time, just as Napoleon was invading Vienna. Bombardment was so close that Beethoven that he had to hide in his brother’s basement and cover his ears with pillows.
I have a theory that composers’ best work comes not when they are in a state of happiness and tranquility but when they face a lot of adversity (I’ve read that this was true for Mozart). Concerto Number 5 is considered by many as one Beethoven’s best – it is my favorite for sure.
My son Jonah and I were watching/listening this performance on Saturday. Jonah, who is taking piano lessons, asked me if his piano teacher could play this concerto as well as Rubenstein. What makes Rubenstein so special? It was one of those questions I just did not know the answer to, except to say, “He is better.” But then I said, let me think about it. An hour later, as I was reading Rubenstein’s autobiography, I came across the answer to my son’s question. The difference is in “performing” versus “re-creating” music. A lot of concert pianists can perform – they’ll hit every note, their technique will be flawless – but something will still be missing. Only a few artists can take music, internalize it and truly re-create it.
I feel uneasy writing this, because comparing one performer (re-creator) to another is highly subjective. Most classical music connoisseurs, present company included, are not qualified to make this judgment. Often, the success of one artist and the failure of another, equally talented, artist are driven by random factors – a favorable review, the patronage of a famous musician etc. Society often decides who the best and who is not. This is where success begets success, as society’s opinions are contagious.
Here is a good example. During his life Johan Sebastian Bach was not known as a composer. Very little of his work was published. But almost eighty years later after his death his reputation received a substantial boost when Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s work.
This weekend I discovered a great documentary about Rubenstein. Someone on YouTube had a perfect description of it: “So corny… but so good!”
I wanted to share with you probably the most unique performance ever recorded (other than Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff): Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. I don’t like to use the term “best” when I describe musicians, for several reasons: first, I am not really an authority, able to determine who the best is. Second, even “the best” are not best at playing their entire repertoire. And finally, music is not a sport where success is objectively measured in seconds or score counts.
By the time you become a recording professional musician you are good, but there is something that is unique (and maybe there is even a little bit of randomness) that makes you into what I call a musical giant. This concerto is performed by four giants of classical music: Herbert Von Karajan – conductor, Sviatoslav Richter – piano, David Oistrakh – violin, and Mstislav Rostropovich – cello. Listen. Enjoy!