Bernstein - Reflections

Bernstein the communicator celebrated as he performs his own music in Israel

Author: 
Jeremy Nicholas

Bernstein - Reflections

  • (Le) Boeuf sur le toit, '(The) Bull on the Roof'

Peter Rosen’s compelling 50-minute film portrait was made in 1977 and seen worldwide – except in the USA, where it was not released, for some reason, until September last year, nearly two decades after Bernstein’s death in 1990. Pivotal to the documentary is this iconic genius of American music rehearsing and conducting a 1977 retrospective of his music in Tel Aviv, amazingly the first such celebration ever mounted. As Rosen notes, “At the time the film would have been more of a current story about the Leonard Bernstein Festival in Israel…now it’s a historic record to be treasured as a look back in time, and a reminder of Bernstein’s universal contribution.”

Interspersed with the all-too-brief extracts from Serenade, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Kaddish (Symphony No 3) and Mass, we see Bernstein reflecting on his life and music, shot in Carnegie Hall (scene of his legendary 1943 debut) and his studio overlooking New York’s Central Park. What a charismatic talker he is – straight to camera, unprompted, measured, fluent, thought-provoking, self-deprecating and fascinating about the creative process. Chain-smoking heroically (in fact the only time he hasn’t got a ciggy in his hand is when there’s a baton in it), Bernstein tells us the story behind the last-minute deputation for Bruno Walter in the broadcast concert that was to make him an overnight star, and his sceptical father’s moving reaction.

Epithets such as “conservative” and “retrogressive” were routinely flung at him by the more progressive critics who could neither understand why he wrote Broadway musicals nor why he eschewed serial techniques (which, of course, he did not, parts of Kaddish illustrating the point). Bernstein, as he tells us resignedly, was merely reflecting the polycultural society in which he thrived. He concludes with a passionate defence of tonality – the root deep in the earth of all musical creation – to which composers are now returning after their trip up the cul-de-sac of dodecaphony. As a communicator both through his music and his verbal eloquence, Bernstein had few peers in the latter part of the last century, and his body of work will surely outlast those of others who do not share his life-affirming credo. If not, dig me up and let me know.

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