Monday, February 26, 2018

lecture report: Alex Ross on Leonard Bernstein

Alex Ross of The New Yorker, finest music critic now working, came to Stanford's little Bing Studio to give a musically illustrated centenary talk on Leonard Bernstein, concentrating on Bernstein's political life.

I couldn't possibly summarize all Ross said in an hour, but I was most interested in his views on Bernstein's Mass. His feelings about it are mixed. He says it's a great work, possibly Bernstein's greatest, but he seems ambivalent about its integration of contrasts: classical and popular, formal and relaxed, sacred and secular. He likes some of the odder aspects, like the marching band Kyrie, but feels embarrassed by the slangy Biblical paraphrase in "God Said." (What th'? That's my favorite part!) And to illustrate his points, he played excerpts from the recent Alsop/Baltimore recording, which sounded really fabulous on the Bing Studio sound system.

Ross's view is that, for Bernstein, Mass was not a political work but a personal one, and he speculates that the Celebrant, who passes from hope through mania and despair, is an autobiographical figure. In the end, Ross said, Mass grabs the listener into a big, sloppy, sweaty embrace, much as Lenny was likely to do to you personally. (But I'm not sure I'd agree after hearing Dudamel's cerebral modernist version.)

But ... he went on ... if it wasn't political to Bernstein, it sure was to Richard Nixon, who as President had to decide whether to attend the premiere at the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, and in the end didn't go. And Ross played us, on the same fabulous stereo system, recordings from the White House tapes of Nixon and Haldeman discussing this, highlighted by Nixon's obsession over Bernstein kissing men in public, which he'd do at curtain calls to those in his cast. And Ross also quoted from memos by various unsavory figures later infamous from Watergate, worrying over whether Bernstein, friend to Daniel Berrigan after all, might sneak into the text anti-war messages in Latin that Nixon might applaud without knowing what they meant. (Like "Dona nobis pacem"?) They were going to get John McLaughlin (priest turned Nixon speechwriter, and later TV political commentary host) to translate it.

Anyway, fascinating hour's talk. And yes, I got to speak to Ross afterwards and thank him for his recent piece on Florence Price.

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