Len vs Glenn
How Leonard Bernstein turned a crisis into a productive disagreement
I’m really looking forward to Maestro, the new biopic of Leonard Bernstein, starring Bradley Cooper. Early reviews are encouraging. Bernstein was a superb conductor, a great educator and proselytiser, a pretty good composer, and a charismatic speaker who transmitted his blazing passion for classical music to millions. Whatever he did, Bernstein was always extremely Bernstein. In his conducting, his stage presence, his persona, he was powerfully unique; there was nobody like him.
This is even more true of the Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. Gould was the most singular pianist of the twentieth century and one of music’s oddest characters. He was a very different personality to Bernstein - introverted, spiky, flamboyantly eccentric - but he had a comparable influence and reach. His radical 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations became one of the most popular classical records ever and inspired generations of musicians. It’s hard to overstate how different it was, and remains, to most performances of Bach. Gould did things that no other interpreters would have dreamed of doing, and while some listeners hated the result, many more were electrified by it.1
Both Bernstein and Gould call to mind Thelonious Monk’s remark that “a genius is one most like himself”. Apart from being highly original artists they were also forward thinkers who embraced new media, especially television, and often found themselves at odds with the classical music establishment. In different ways, they both gave the appearance of being absolutely fearless.
The two of them were personally friendly, though they had divergent tastes. Bernstein was more rooted in the classical tradition than Gould, who did his own thing to the point of perversity. That’s why it was fascinating when the two of them came together to collaborate, as they did a few times, in the recording studio and on TV, and, most memorably, in a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962, with the New York Philharmonic.
Gould was booked to perform Brahms’ first Piano Concerto, a majestic work, one of the staples of the concert hall repertoire. Just before the concert, Gould called Bernstein from Toronto and told him he had some exciting new ideas for the Brahms. Bernstein braced himself. A conductor’s job under these circumstances is usually to listen to the soloist, and then, working with the orchestra, help realise his or her vision of the piece. There is a delicate balance of power to negotiate, however, since both conductor and soloist have a say, and they don’t always agree.
Even if they have different ideas, it’s very unusual for them to reach a total impasse. But when Gould arrived for rehearsals, Bernstein discovered that his soloist’s vision was too radical for him to swallow. Gould wanted to play the first movement at the same tempo as the second movement (Adagio) - that is, much slower than it’s usually performed. For Bernstein and the orchestra it was just wrong. The first movement now took about as long as a standard performance of the whole concerto. But Gould was set on it. He also had some idiosyncratic proposals for dynamics - for how loud or soft to play certain passages.
Much as Bernstein liked and admired Gould, he didn’t feel that he could in all conscience perform the piece this way - certainly not with his orchestra, at Carnegie Hall. That would make it seem as if he endorsed Gould’s interpretation, which he certainly didn’t. Bernstein considered handing over the baton to his assistant during Gould’s performance, thereby washing his hands of it. But that would have caused a furore, and anyway it seemed like an abdication of responsibility. So he did something very unorthodox and rather brilliant. He decided to conduct the piece according to Gould’s wishes but to air their disagreement beforehand, in an address to the audience.
The concert was recorded and you can listen to Bernstein deliver his speech here. Here’s the text of it - you should imagine him speaking it with a genial smile and a twinkle in his eye:
“Don’t be frightened. Mr. Gould is here. He will appear in a moment. I’m not, as you know, in the habit of speaking at any concert, but a curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two. You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I’ve ever heard, or even dreamt of, for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms’ dynamic indications. I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception. And this raises the interesting question: ‘What am I doing conducting it?’ I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith. And his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.
But the age-old question still remains: ‘In a concerto, who is the boss; the soloist or the conductor?’ The answer is, of course, sometimes one, sometimes the other, depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm or even threats to achieve a unified performance. I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist’s wholly new and incompatible concept and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould. (Audience laughter) But, this time, the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.
So why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why do I not make a minor scandal — get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct it? Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work. Because, what’s more, there are moments in Mr. Gould’s performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist, who is a thinking performer. And finally because there is in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call “the sportive element”: that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment. And I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto, and it’s in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you.”
What a speech. It’s a wonderful example of getting a disagreement out in the open rather than hiding it away, a theme of CONFLICTED. You can imagine a less confident conductor - or any kind of leader - being terrified of revealing such a conflict to the world, for fear of looking weak, or merely confused. Instead, Bernstein put his ego aside, and said, in effect, ‘We disagree, and isn’t that interesting?’
He shows us that you don’t have to like an interpretation to find it valuable. In fact, you can strongly dislike it, but if it’s by a great artist, there will always be something to learn from it. At a certain level of artistic or intellectual expression, there is tremendous value in mistakes. When a great artist or thinker is wrong, they are wrong in a way that’s more interesting than most people are when they’re right.
Gould’s performance of the Brahms didn’t anywhere near as influential as his Bach (in fact, he played it a bit less slowly in the second of his two performances with Bernstein; he was learning from his own mistakes)2 But then, as Bernstein said, it was an experiment, and one very much worth making. The critics trashed it. Harold Schoenberg of the New York Times, accused Gould, ridiculously, of not having the technical chops to play the work at speed (whatever else could be said about Gould, he was technically supreme) and scorned Bernstein’s speech. He wasn’t wrong to criticise the concert, but he did rather miss the point. As for Gould himself, he loved the speech.
Bernstein took a crisis and turned it into a teachable moment. He invited the public backstage, exposing the power politics of classical performance. Who is the boss, the soloist or the conductor? Leaders of any kind are usually too nervous to draw aside curtains like that. Through his humour as much as his words, Bernstein conveyed that art is an adventure in which there is no need to be afraid.
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