at Orchestra Hall

June 16 and 21

Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday is coming up, and his recent appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have occasioned many ringing praises–in the press, at Orchestra Hall, and at a $75-a-plate birthday dinner at the Museum of Science and Industry. The performances themselves, however, made it abundantly clear that those praises had more to do with the Leonard Bernstein of the past than of the present.

Who can possibly be objective about Bernstein? There is hardly anyone under 40 (and no doubt hardly anyone over 40) who didn’t have his or her interest in classical music initiated or significantly enhanced by Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in the 1960s or by his Norton Lectures of the early 70s, to say nothing of his brilliantly marketed CBS recordings. Along with those of the late conductor Eugene Ormandy, they were often the only classical recordings that neighborhood record stores would carry in those years. And then there’s Bernstein’s influence as a composer to take into account.

Apparently Bernstein is still idolized and idealized because he remains a strong and emotional musical presence and imagination in an era when American conductors are routinely brilliant technically but have little in the way of musical vision. The younger Bernstein was a man who made himself extremely accessible, who would listen to and entertain musicians, friends, and fans long into the wee hours. Even as recently as his Ravinia appearances two and three years ago, he kept benefactor receptions waiting so long most party goers had left by the time he actually arrived–all so he could sign autographs, chat, hug, take pictures, and generally mingle with anyone who wanted to see him backstage–often for two hours!

Alas, Bernstein’s declining health and a vicious attack on him in an unauthorized Joan Peyser biography keep him much more on guard these days. Most of his time in Chicago was spent literally locked in his suite at the Mayfair Regent. Bernstein never liked being quoted, but at one time he would talk–even if the material was not for the record. No more.

Much has been made of all the maneuvering necessary to lure Bernstein here to conduct the CSO, something he hasn’t done since 1951, when he was a brash young conductor of 33. The conditions for his recent performances were stiff–two appearances out of four had to be with three young conductors of Bernstein’s own choosing (in effect, each of those was less than half of a Bernstein concert). Furthermore, the repertoire was to be determined by Bernstein’s recording company (which would record the concert live)–hence the ludicrous choice of two Shostakovich symphonies merely to fill in discography gaps. The concerts would have to be done while Bernstein was in Chicago for the American Symphony Orchestra League conference, and he would take the CSO to New York at the end of the Chicago run. (In effect this scheduling obliterated one-third of the CSO’s usual appearances at Ravinia with James Levine, who always leaves for Salzburg in mid-July.) How much of all this was Bernstein’s idea and how much was the kowtowing of present CSO management is difficult to determine, but one must wonder whether in the long run the disadvantages and casualties didn’t outweigh the advantages.

It was no accident that Bernstein sounded so wonderful after an hour of student conducting; not to take anything away from his powerful opening performance, but its quality was especially apparent for having followed the mediocre and less-than-mediocre performances of Richard Strauss tone poems. The one promising exception was Kate Tamarkin conducting Don Juan; she has the talent and control to develop into a major conductor, a welcome promise given that there are presently so few women in the field.

Although today everyone acknowledges the genius of the Shostakovich First Symphony (it was written in 1925 when the composer was only 18), it is often bypassed in performance for the later, conservative works. And despite the recognition it has gained, the First is still as underrated as the later symphonies are overrated. One of only a handful of forward-looking Shostakovich works, it avoids his later bombastic and simplistic revival of 19th-century Romanticism, a path he took to please the artistically conservative Russian Communist party. Bernstein chose to bring out many of the score’s more Romantic elements, but he also sees it for the daring and adventurous work it is.

Bernstein’s emotionalism and the CSO’s precision make a glorious combination indeed; the result was over 30 minutes of magical music making. The first movement was given a treatment full of atmosphere, and yet the orchestra’s ensembling and entrances were kept as clean as possible. Bernstein built the movement very carefully to a skillful climax almost like a march, drawing upon a wealth of orchestral color. The folk fugue of the second movement was played with precision and meaning, and the movement’s overall motific unity and form were well brought out. The difficult ensembling, particularly between the piano and strings, was masterfully handled.

Some very slow conducting marked Bernstein’s rendering of the third movement, and the slowness emphasized the beautiful tone he was able to draw out of the usually harsh-sounding CSO string section. Bernstein’s layering of timbre was especially well handled during the superb violin solo played by coconcertmaster Sam Magad.

Bernstein leaped into the final movement without a break. (Perhaps he intended to thwart the unfortunate ASOL members who clapped after the first movement, the victims of a seminar earlier in the day that encouraged applause between movements.) The climax of the work rang through the hall triumphantly, highlighted by some exquisite solo cello passages played by relatively new CSO principal John Sharp. His beautiful tone and solid musicianship seem infallibly on call.

Considering that Bernstein so eloquently employed a wide palette of orchestral shading and dynamic contrasts for the Shostakovich First, the lack of these qualities less than a week later in his treatment of the Shostakovich Seventh is very difficult to explain. Granted, the Seventh is a much longer work than the First (though not necessarily larger in form), and there is much less to work with musically. It’s an overextended and often vulgar essay on the siege of Leningrad, but one would have hoped that Bernstein could have brought out some musical subtlety and dynamic contrast from the frivolous score. Not so.

Though the work’s opening received some tender treatment, the notoriously trivial march that makes up the bulk of the first movement was given virtually no contrast or balance whatsoever. There was no buildup or warning, just harshness, and crashingly loud forte, forte, forte in conducting reminiscent of Lorin Maazel’s–just pull out all the stops in as unbalanced a manner as possible, and wail. When the march moved into its coda, the work was further marred by some flat solo violin playing and some flat high winds (accurate pitch has never been a priority for Bernstein) in a section so slow it literally dragged.

Just out of curiosity, I looked at my watch–the first movement of the Seventh had clocked in at 35 minutes, the length of the entire First Symphony, and yet much less had been said musically, by composer or conductor. With his baton pointed like a dagger at himself, Bernstein slowly began the second movement, also played with little contrast and so slowly that it is a marvel the players pulled it off without falling asleep. The one thing that can be said for the second movement is that its architecture held together well.

The ensembling and entrances of the third movement were quite scattered, and various string glissandi were not executed in unison. This scattered effect was reproduced in the final movement by the CSO brass section, whose tone, volume, and timbre recalled the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. Half of the brass section was elevated on a stage-right platform for recording purposes, and although this may have served the recording well, for the audience it only increased the volume.

The conclusion, with its return to the vulgar march section and the harsh brass and pounding timpani, left me wondering if the Battle of Leningrad itself could have been longer or louder.

The instant standing ovation and cheering that crowned this long evening served as a timely reminder of how seductive Bernstein’s peculiar and intense brand of energy can still be, regardless of how it is expressed. He is such an extraordinary musical phenomenon that how well he actually conducts seems increasingly irrelevant or imperceptible to those caught up in the sheer electricity of Bernsteinmania.