A Tale of Critique and Chutzpah: Leonard Bernstein as a Conductor


By Mollie Goldfarb

Classical music was commonly danced and listened to in the Jewish shtetl, otherwise known as Brooklyn in the 1930s. My grandparents’, Bubbe and Opa, respective family living rooms were filled with the sounds of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven when they practically lived down the block from one another (before they even knew the other existed and way before their first date). Their teenage memories consist of the sweet sounds of classical music, none of that rebel rousing jazz music of the 1930s. Obviously, it only made sense their honeymoon include a stop at Tanglewood, the premier spot for classical music during the beautiful, breezy summer months in the Berkshire Mountains.


Bubbe & Opa. Tanglewood – Summer 1955.


Bernstein was revered as a God in the heavenly tree-lined landscape of Tanglewood, according to his son Alexander: “The entire exertion of the place revolved around him–his work, his needs–and everyone was happy to oblige.” (1) However, his relationship with the NY Philharmonic from 1958 – 1990 was much more tempestuous compared to his consecutive teaching summers spent at Tanglewood. Although many music enthusiasts were discontent with his unmistakable style, some orchestra members applauded Bernstein’s dynamic behavior and mannerisms. He adamantly rejected the stuffy, unrelatable pretenses of classical music, specifically because the NY Philharmonic was declining in popularity and lacked sufficient energy to interest its patrons or compete with the more “prestigious” symphonies in Boston & Philadelphia. For example, the late Walter Botti, a New York Philharmonic bass player from 1952 to 2002, believed his charisma transformed the orchestra: “Lenny loved everybody and he wanted to be loved by everybody, but music came first. He pushed the Orchestra, but he never, never embarrassed anybody or put people on the spot. He was a real mensch.” (2) He constantly nudged the musicians to their physical and emotional limits by demanding long-hours and intense rehearsals, as he tried to solve the oxymoron of “American classical music.” (3) During this time, classical music was rooted in Eurocentric ideals and principles but this did not discourage or halt Bernstein in his tracks to Americanize classical music; rather, he began to have wild dreams to conduct American canons distinct from the far-flung arrangements in Europe: “More than the Russian-born Koussevitzky, more than the English-born Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein tackled the oxymoron head-on.” (4) His programs consisted of an interesting mash-up between 19th-century romantic music and modern American works. To grasp the diversity of music during his time with the NY Philharmonic, his first subscription program included William Schuman’s American Festival Overture, Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. (5) Nevertheless, even though his position with the Philharmonic spanned over many years fraught with political turmoil and social revolution, his desire to conduct great American canons and regenerate American patriotism did not digress. However, his sense of urgency was sometimes overshadowed by his splashy behavior and presence onstage.

In his distinct quest to solve this oxymoron of American classical music, he faced many critiques from scholarly peers and longtime NY Philharmonic subscribers, such as my grandparents. His larger than life personality often frustrated many patrons; my grandparents always felt he would “eat up the applause” once onstage and even worse, distract from the music with dramatic theatrical mannerisms, “excessively swaying and stomping his foot to the music.” Patrons began to wonder, “Was the main attraction the man on the podium or the music he was conducting?” His overwhelming conducting style played to a specific audience while it simultaneously soured others opinion of him: “At his worst, Bernstein was the Barbra Streisand of conductors, an ego-filled blimp who used the classics as a backdrop for his dramatic posturing.” (6) His polarizing style was fervently felt throughout the audience, leaving those similar in opinion to my grandparents isolated and annoyed by his takeover and grand upheaval of classical conducting.

That Mahler feeling … Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1970. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Although his personal conducting style did not win over my grandparents’ hearts, his programs as a conductor drastically (consciously or subconsciously) altered their attitude towards American classical music–one of the most explicit and important goals in Bernstein’s professional career, specifically as a conductor. I recently asked my grandparents if they thought NY Philharmonic patrons of that era truly enjoyed his eccentric programs with an interesting Eurocentric and American mix. Their answer neatly sums up the long-lasting impact of Bernstein as a conductor and more or less, a revolutionary: “It is hard to say, as we do not have access to patron’s views…and do not remember if Bernstein introduced more modern American music…That is not to say he did or didn’t. We just do not remember. However, if you were to ask us today if we enjoy the aforementioned music the answer would be yes.”

  1. Donald L. Trott & Alexander Bernstein, “Leonard Bernstein Remembered: A Lecture/Interview with His Son, Alexander,” American Choral Directors Association, November 1993.
  2. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100,” The Weekly Standard, April 27, 2018, https://www.weeklystandard.com/joseph-horowitz/a-wunderkind-at-100.
  3. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100.”
  4. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100.”
  5. Joseph Horowitz, “A Wunderkind at 100.”
  6. Terry Teachout, “How Good Was Leonard Bernstein?,” Commentary Magazine (blog), October 1, 1994, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/how-good-was-leonard-bernstein/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *