Have we hit Bernstein fatigue already?

Have we hit Bernstein fatigue already?


norman lebrecht

January 25, 2018

January is not yet done and the daily diet of Bernstein material is starting to feel jaded.

Yesterday, the centennial machine dug up a late rehearsal video of Copland’s third symphony. Watch here.

It’s wonderful, exhilarating, nostalgic, moving and inimitable.

At the same time, it inspires a sense of definite déja vu. Aimed as it is at classical loyalists, it neither extends the Bernstein audience nor does it add to our understanding of a unique figure in American and western music.

The big books about Bernstein have all been written. His life is an open book and his works are a mixed bag. By the end of the year we will have heard everything he wrote. What bugs me is that the commercial machine driving the centennial has already made it feel stale, without any obvious benefit.

There are exhibitions, recordings, films and festivals to come. The BBC has a Total Immersion day this weekend. This summer will be wall-to-wall Bernstein.

I hesitate to open today’s mailbag for fear of more vaguely familiar, over-familiar LB. And I am a sworn admirer, someone who had the privilege of brief acquaintance with him. If I’m feeling a surfeit of Bernstein….

Anyone out there feel the same way?



  • C Porumbescu says:

    Yes, but part of the problem is that in London the LSO got started on a whole load of Bernstein celebrations back in November, and Opera North did Trouble in Tahiti even before that – well ahead of the main event. No idea why.

    Also most people don’t spend as much time with this stuff as the hardcore fans. A lot of the “serious” concert music is genuinely rare, and quite a few of the events – the three symphonies with the LSO, and the “On the Waterfront” score performed live with the film for example – do have the potential to make us reappraise Bernstein (and I’d argue that the operas and symphonies are heavily in need of reappraisal). The Candide overture and West Side Story symphonic dances get played anyway, every season.

    Meanwhile there’s no sign that the general public has lost any of its appetite for his Broadway music, and one night show-tune celebrations will do good trade, as they always do (one sold out in Birmingham last night and I believe the John Wilson Orchestra has something up its sleeve – tell me that won’t be worth hearing?)

    The one big absence, as far as I can see, is new productions of the classic shows where they should be: on stage. “Wonderful Town” is still underrated, “On the Town” is rarely seen, “Candide” always benefits from a fresh approach, and “West Side Story” is a straight-up masterpiece. But they need to be seen in the theatre (not least, to help correct the narrative – which comes so easily to the classical music world – that Bernstein was their sole creator). Concert versions don’t cut it, however well-meant.

  • Steve says:

    Still he has never been surpassed, a true musical phenomenon with an ever curious intellect extending across all the arts; also admirable was his sweeping knowledge of history, politics and his sense of engagement…

  • Eric says:

    People are experiencing Bernstein in places beyond the major cities, and they won’t have the same saturated exposure that we may in places like NY, London, etc. I, frankly, welcome it all!

  • barbara says:

    LB’s lectures at Harvard ( found on youtube)are truly amazing worth the time to listen…especially on Mahler.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    And now there’s a news story out that Steven Spielberg is going to remake West Side Story. I went to high school with Steve. Steve, you’re no Robert Wise.

  • Robert Roy says:

    Many years ago, I spent a summer listening ‘blind’ to over 70 versions of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. I’d Pre-recorded each version onto a mini-disc which was given a number so I’d not be swayed by seeing labels or having to skip tracks to reach the maestro’s immortal masterpiece.

    Two versions were absolutely outstanding. The first was Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic and the second was Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic.

    In my very humble opinion, Bernstein was a truly wonderful conductor.

    • Mr. Schwa says:

      Yes, enough already! LB was great, but it seems that all centennials overdo it. Enough Candide, which can turn your stomach.

      • Jaybuyer says:

        So is it advisable not to eat anything before going to “Mass”?(6/7 April at Southbank, London. Alsop with NYO GB and a cast of hundreds!)


      Robert, what a neat experiment!
      “Lenny” definitely FELT the music.
      He also thoroughly delved into
      researching not only the music but also
      a composer’s background.

      I once read, while usually orchestra players
      want to get rehearsals over ASAP with as little talking as possible, players loved LB’s “stories”, i.e. explanations and anecdotes.

      To me LB brought LOVE to the music,
      a fine arts application of St. Paul in
      1 Cor. 13:”…the greatest of these is Love.”

      It would have been interesting,
      had Bernstein and Mahler met.
      Both were Jewish, though Mahler
      did become Roman Catholic in order to
      qualify for the Hofoper position.

      The two men would have been soulmates
      for PASSION Mahler’s Works exhibit !

      Back to Beethoven…thanks to YouTube
      we can witness that historic 1989
      Ninth Symphony performance for the
      Berlin Celebration at the Schauspiel.
      That has GOT to be among the BEST
      renditions of the Work E-V-E-R !!!

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Actually, there is a good chance Mahler would have not have liked Bernstein. Mahler may well have disapproved of his “casual unfaithfulness to his wife” in his private life, and his “over-wrought emotions” in his conducting, and he may have thought his compositions “lacked seriousness”.

      • Mr. Schwa says:

        Every good conductor studies the composers and their backgrounds. And all of the best ines know as much as LB knew.

  • Abi Pearce says:

    Brace yourself for more Bernstein than you thought possible – at the sold out Bernstein concert last night (CBSO, John Wilson, Kim Criswell, Julian Ovenden et al, it was fabulous), John Wilson mentioned in the pre-concert talk that there were over 4,000 concerts planned for this coming year…. and the Bernstein ‘kids’ had divided up these between them so they basically go to one a day each for the year….and still don’t get to every one of them….
    The On the Waterfront suite got an airing, and was superbly played/conducted, I find that a riveting piece. Mind you, Kim Criswell doing I Can Cook Too is pretty compelling! And yes, Mr Wilson mentioned that a full theatrical version of a Bernstein (WSS I’m guessing, though he didn’t say) is being prepared. That I need to see.

  • harold braun says:

    The video can´t be played here in Germany,sadly….