A few luscious slices from the massive cake that was the life of the great pianist, composer, conductor and public personality (1918-1990).
In this latest entry in the publisher’s Jewish Lives series, Shawn (Composition and Music History/Bennington Coll.; Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life, 2007, etc.) begins with some vignettes and then embraces chronology, confessing the impossibility of confining such a life as Bernstein’s between the covers of a book. We learn about his parents, his schooling (Boston Latin and Harvard, where he emerged as a star) and his early realization that he “was physically attracted to both sexes.” Although Shawn does not focus intently on Bernstein’s sex life (there are more urgent items on his agenda), he does remind us throughout that Bernstein had a variety of lovers, as well as a long, sometimes-troubled marriage and three children. The author describes Bernstein’s gift as a pianist and his segue into conducting; his big break came in 1943, when he stepped in to conduct the New York Philharmonic, a life-changing success. Since he has few pages and a lot to discuss, Shawn can pause only occasionally to discuss a Bernstein composition in detail (he does so with The Age of Anxiety and Candide, among others). But the author reminds us of Bernstein’s long-lost music for Peter Pan and writes with near reverence about his 53 Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Shawn also discusses West Side Story (and the genesis of Bernstein’s friendship with young lyricist Stephen Sondheim), his passion for Mahler, his championing of American classical music, the Norton Lectures at Harvard, and his liberal social and political stances. (He once attended a Jimi Hendrix concert.) Shawn gives some space to Bernstein’s critics, as well, and he does not neglect the composer’s final sad slide.
A nearly impossible task, recording this lush life, but Shawn helps us comprehend the magic.