"He drank a lot," Ned Rorem says of Leonard Bernstein in a new 11-part radio documentary that has begun airing weekly around the country and starts tonight at 7 on KMZT-FM. "I remember he even drank for breakfast. That impressed me."
Bernstein's drinking impressed me as well. Except when he was on the podium, Bernstein, in my memory, nearly always had a glass of Scotch in hand.
And nothing impressed me more than a boozy Bernstein performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, the "Leningrad," with the Chicago Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall in New York in 1988. The concert began late. Shortly before curtain time, Bernstein was reportedly discovered in his apartment at the nearby Dakota in a drunken stupor.
After being thrown into a cold shower, rushed to the concert hall and hurtled on stage, he came to life. No, he didn't come to life, he embodied it, in an unforgettably fervent reading that encompassed what felt like the great extremes of human experience -- deepest despondency and ecstatic elation.
The "Leningrad" was meant in 1941 to stir a city under siege and show the world that the Russian spirit couldn't be broken by Nazi invaders. Written to glorify its composer as well, the symphony is perhaps helpful populist art, but cheap. Lenny's "Leningrad," by contrast, was neither useful nor cheap. It was a musical place in which the power of sound was crushing, both physically and emotionally.
For those 90 Shostakovich minutes, I understood little of what it was like to live through the Nazi occupation of Leningrad but an awful lot of what it must have been
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