Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

A Composer Rewrites: Sour Notes

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

A Composer Rewrites: Sour Notes

Article excerpt

As a composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein was accustomed to uncongenial reviews. But in 1962, critics slammed him for his words: a brief statement he made before the eccentric pianist Glenn Gould performed with the New York Philharmonic.

In what he termed a "small disclaimer," Bernstein told the Carnegie Hall audience, "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's dynamic indications." Bernstein was not, he said, "in total agreement with Mr. Gould's conception." Nonetheless, he felt that Gould was "so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith." Hardly an intemperate rant, but it was enough to scandalize classical music aficionados.

"Such goings-on at the New York Philharmonic concert yesterday afternoon!" Harold C. Schonberg wrote in a chatty New York Times review. "First the conductor comes out to read a speech. He says that he doesn't like the way the pianist will play the concerto.... He washes his hands of it." Schonberg devoted as much space to Bernstein's remarks as to Gould's performance. (He didn't care for either.)

Schonberg wasn't alone in chiding the conductor. Another critic faulted Bernstein's "betrayal" of his soloist. Three days after the concert, the Associated Press reported that "music lovers ... are still talking" about his disclaimer. When Gould stopped performing publicly in 1964, some fans blamed Bernstein. In the years since, Bernstein and Gould biographers have endlessly rehashed the episode.

During a daylong interview with journalist Jonathan Cott in 1989, Bernstein told his side of the story. Excerpts of the conversation appeared in Rolling Stone in 1990. Cott has now published the whole thing in Dinner With Lenny (Oxford Univ. Press).

In Bernstein's account, Gould insisted that "the answer to the Brahms D Minor" was to play it a glacially slow tempo. The conductor tried to dissuade him, but Gould was adamant. Bernstein warned the orchestra--"I don't want anybody to laugh or protest"--and he thought he needed to warn the audience as well; "otherwise we would have an empty hall at the end of that first movement." Diplomatically, he told Gould that he wanted to make a few introductory remarks about "your new revelatory interpretation of the piece. …

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