Leonard Bernstein's Real Legacy

It is one of those stories that never get old. Once upon a time, a matinee crowd bustled into Carnegie Hall to hear a program led by the visiting German-born conductor Bruno Walter. After taking their seats, the concertgoers learned that the maestro had fallen ill and would not appear. Even worse, it turned out that the only person available to lead the mighty New York Philharmonic on a half day's notice was a skinny assistant conductor who hadn't had time to rehearse the music (which boded ill), was born in America (unlikely in those days) and was just 25 years old (preposterous at any time). Under these fraught circumstances, the kid delivered a performance kinetic enough to be extraordinary. As in four-curtain-calls extraordinary. As in front-page-of-the-next-day's-New-York-Times extraordinary. As in (keep in mind the live radio feed beaming it from coast to coast) Bobby-Thomson-"the-Giants-win-the-pennant" extraordinary.

Leonard Bernstein captured the public imagination that day in 1943 and, in five succeeding decades as conductor, composer, teacher, activist and all-around personality, never let it go. This fall, what feels like half the cultural institutions in New York City have banded together to honor his far-flung achievements. Led by Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, "Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds" marks the 90th anniversary of his birth and the 50th anniversary of his appointment as music director of the Philharmonic. There are symphonic concerts (some featuring student choirs drawn from public schools), jazz renditions of his work (by Bill Charlap), an in-depth film retrospective at Lincoln Center and even "Our Lenny," a two-week radio celebration that aired earlier this month and now streams on wnyc.org. This octopus-armed reach is only fitting for the man who was captured in a 1957 Time cover story staggering to bed at 3 a.m. and gazing in horror at the next day's schedule. "Who do I think I am," he cried, "everybody?"

Though it's a little awkward to be celebrating a 90th birthday instead of a proper centennial, the timing turns out to be propitious, too. Spend a little time chasing Bernstein's legacy around town, and you pick up overtones of a rare sensibility. Today, when high and low culture sneer at each other across a gulf of incomprehension and politically useful ill will, Bernstein seems a glorious freak: the avatar of a democratic cultural dream that elitism and populism can commune, not to cancel each other out but to their mutual benefit. This is not what Tocqueville had in mind when he predicted that the sprawling patchwork nature of our society doomed us to mediocre, middle-ground art. But not even the prophetic Tocqueville could see Lenny Bernstein coming.

"I love two things: music and people," says Bernstein in "The Gift of Music," one of the biographical films screening at Lincoln Center this fall. "I don't know which I like better." There were times when he had to choose, to fight to give himself time to compose. But for the most part, Bernstein's life is defined by the fruitful interplay between the two. Growing up in Lawrence, Mass., he couldn't persuade his father to pay for piano lessons, forcing the teenage Lenny to teach students even younger and greener than he was to earn the money to keep learning. After he graduated from Harvard, "conductor" became the perfect description of what he did, because the energy of a composition flowed through him like current down a wire: he swayed, he jabbed his baton, he strutted like Jagger.

In the 1950s, he later recalled, his "old quasi-rabbinical instinct for teaching and explaining and verbalizing suddenly found a paradise in television." With his youthful energy, good looks and lion's charisma, Bernstein exploited the new medium in ways that still captivate. Whether demystifying Bach for a broad public or defending jazz to those who thought the music "low class," he refused to dumb down. "Music is hard," he acknowledged. Honoring its complexity while reaching out to a wide audience—both to adult viewers and via his Young People's Concerts—required a careful balance, one he knew was impossible to achieve "without the conviction that the public is not a great beast but an intelligent organism, more often than not longing for insight and knowledge."

Though this outlook seemed novel, it was, in fact, deeply retro—and distinctly American. When the country's identity took shape in the 19th century, our culture was a rollicking, boundary-busting free-for-all. Lawrence W. Levine's history "Highbrow/Lowbrow" testifies to the central place that Shakespeare and opera occupied in the national consciousness, appealing equally—and simultaneously—to all classes and socioeconomic groups. "Richard III" might share a bill with magicians or minstrels, or be lampooned as "Bad Dicky"; soldiers marched off to the Civil War to the "Traviata Quickstep." There are plenty of elements of this cultural scene we should be glad to have outgrown. (In 1897, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was proud to note that "there is no more spitting tobacco juice on the gallery floors.") But we should—and Bernstein did—regret the loss of what Levine calls "a shared public culture," one less hierarchically organized and split into fewer little categories than the scene we know today.

It's no coincidence—though it was Bernstein's immense good fortune—that his zenith came at a moment when some powerful people shared this desire. The Kennedys made their White House, in the words of Richard Hofstadter, "a center of receptivity to culture." Bernstein performed at the Inaugural Gala, and, like Pablo Casals, E. E. Cummings, Robert Frost and other high-art luminaries, found a warm welcome throughout the Camelot years. Swept up in the notion that Americans might be able to meet not at the lowest common denominator but at the cultural peak, Bernstein was devastated by JFK's death, which was also the death of Camelot. He dedicated his Third Symphony, "Kaddish," to the late president.

Late compositions like that one and "Mass," an extravaganza about Roman Catholic ritual, drew nothing like the praise of his earlier "West Side Story" or "On the Town." Still, Bernstein continued to show that the pursuit of excellence could coexist with American democracy. (It is one of the qualities that made him such an effective cultural emissary during the cold war.) But that position became decidedly lonelier after 1968, when Richard Nixon replaced the old economic resentments of presidential campaigns with obnoxious new cultural ones pitting "the silent majority" against assorted decadent elites. By the time Bernstein died in 1990, the very things he hoped might unite us had become a tool for driving us apart.

Anybody reading the papers can see how vicious the culture wars have grown. Just about any personal quality with a whiff of distinction—a hobby, a vegetable preference—can get you branded an elitist and a threat to our values. Remember how, in a desperate bid for self-preservation, John Kerry pretended four years ago he didn't speak French? Or consider how, at this year's Republican convention, Barack Obama was mocked by the multimillionaire former mayor of New York City and prominent opera buff Rudy Giuliani for being "cosmopolitan." Maybe Tocqueville was right about us.

Nobody thinks that if only Sean Hannity listeners had a subtler appreciation of Mahler, they'd cozy right up to Nancy Pelosi fans, or that a wave of "Bad Dicky" revivals might heal the wounds of the body politic. But the Bernstein festival reminds us that one of our civilization's triumphs has been finding ways to reconcile "elite" and "popular," to stop treating the words like opposing epithets. At a time when so many other echoes of Camelot are in the air, we may yet see the return of its cultural spirit, one that few Americans have embodied as fully as Lenny Bernstein.

Because even beyond the festival, that spirit can be detected around town, nowhere more clearly than in the temple of the elites, the Metropolitan Opera. Since taking over as general manager two years ago, Peter Gelb has worked to correct what he calls the defeatism of the classical-music establishment of decades past. "Rather than admit that it was not being successful reaching a broader public, there was a movement—which Bernstein was totally opposed to—of disdaining the public," he says. Gelb has thrown open his doors to millions of new operagoers. He simulcasts opening night in Times Square and beams live HD broadcasts of the Met's operas to movie theaters. He does this not just because it's good for the bottom line but because, in his strong form of democratic elitism, it's good for the art. "I don't think you can be truly, completely, theatrically successful unless you have the public filling the theater," he says.

Still, the old question does bear asking: what's in it for the folks? If American society needs more common ground, why shouldn't Bernstein or any of his successors be content with boosting ratings to the Super Bowl? I put the question to the man who stands nearest the legacy of Leonard Bernstein. Michael Tilson Thomas took over the Young People's Concerts in the 1970s, and now, as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, uses TV and the Internet with a Lenny-like aplomb. Bernstein insisted on high-low harmony because "he was a humanist," Thomas says. "As a result of knowing these great pieces of music or great poems or paintings, or whatever the art might be, you become bigger and more understanding. And that's the highest purpose of what the arts are trying to do."

According to Thomas, it's not just the lectures and books and TV gigs that bear this message: Bernstein's real spirit lies in his music. Nowhere does it ring clearer than in what the composer John Adams describes (in the new essay collection "Leonard Bernstein: American Original") as his masterpiece: "West Side Story." Like just about everything intended for the Broadway stage, the show (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, libretto by Arthur Laurents and dances by Jerome Robbins) can be classed as a middlebrow work. But when you're listening to it—which you'll have the chance to do on Oct. 29, when PBS airs a performance of Thomas conducting the show's "Symphonic Dances" suite at Carnegie Hall's opening night—the high-low distinctions come to seem as remote as those 19th-century free-for-alls.

In Bernstein's score, soaring symphonic moments downshift suddenly to knockabout numbers like "Gee, Officer Krupke." Crucial, too, are the weird strands tangled up in its DNA: Bernstein acknowledged that he lifted the opening phrase of "Mambo" from some unknown band he once heard in Puerto Rico, and other moments bear the influence of his great friend Aaron Copland. Because its kaleidoscopic qualities put the show in a realm all its own, everybody, no matter what his background, has to travel some cultural distance to get there. Everybody, in its presence, feels a little bit a stranger and a little bit at home. Bernstein's music creates its own crossroads, which is another way of saying it's about as American as a work of art gets.