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Gramophone, October 2010

You might say that no documentary about Leonard Bernstein could possibly fail. Surely there has never been a more television-friendly classical musician. He only, it seems, needed to open his mouth and out would pour wisdom, wit and worlds so perfectly chosen they might have been scripted. But few documentaries work as well as this, which caught the great man during the excitement of the first retrospective of his music, from the Israel Philharmonic. It also knows when to let him just talk. And so he lies on a sofa and does just that, sometimes intimately, sometimes knowingly striking a posture. There was a private Bernstein, one senses, that lay beyond any interview, but Peter Rosen’s film gets some way beyond most.

Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone, December 2009

Bernstein the communicator celebrated as he performs his own music in Israel

Peter Rosen’s compelling 50-minute film portrait was made in 1977 and seen worldwide—except in the USA, where it was not released, for some reason, until September last year, nearly two decades after Bernstein’s death in 1990. Pivotal to the documentary is this iconic genius of American music rehearsing and conducting a 1977 retrospective of his music in Tel Aviv, amazingly the first such celebration ever mounted. As Rosen notes, “At the time the film would have been more of a current story about the Leonard Bernstein Festival in Israel…now it’s a historic record to be treasured as a look back in time, and a reminder of Bernstein’s universal contribution.”

Interspersed with the all-too-brief extracts from Serenade, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Kaddish (Symphony No 3) and Mass, we see Bernstein reflecting on his life and music, shot in Carnegie Hall (scene of his legendary 1943 debut) and his studio overlooking New York’s Central Park. What a charismatic talker he is—straight to camera, unprompted, measured, fluent, thought-provoking, self-deprecating and fascinating about the creative process. Chain-smoking heroically (in fact the only time he hasn’t got a ciggy in his hand is when there’s a baton in it), Bernstein tells us the story behind the last-minute deputation for Bruno Walter in the broadcast concert that was to make him an overnight star, and his sceptical father’s moving reaction.

Epithets such as “conservative” and “retrogressive” were routinely flung at him by the more progressive critics who could neither understand why he wrote Broadway musicals nor why he eschewed serial techniques (which, of course, he did not, parts of Kaddish illustrating the point). Bernstein, as he tells us resignedly, was merely reflecting the polycultural society in which he thrived. He concludes with a passionate defence of tonality—the root deep in the earth of all musical creation—to which composers are now returning after their trip up the cul-de-sac of dodecaphony. As a communicator both through his music and his verbal eloquence, Bernstein had few peers in the latter part of the last century, and his body of work will surely outlast those of others who do not share his life-affirming credo. If not, dig me up and let me know.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, November 2009

This fine film may seem a bit dated because it was made in 1977 and shown around the world but not in North America. (Would be of interest to know why; this has occurred with many other films and recordings.)  There are other documentaries on the great conductor/composer/and communicator of music knowledge, but this exploration of Bernstein’s colorful career offers a different view and many face-to-face comments directly from him and his ever-present cigarette.

One of the most interesting is his detailed story of his 1943 launch to fame (at age 25) by suddenly being called upon to replace the ailing Bruno Walter at the podium of the New York Philharmonic for a nationwide broadcast. He talks about his Boston childhood, his meeting Reiner, Mitropoulos and Koussevitsky, and his general musical growth.  Excerpts of a large number of his works are seen and heard—many in rehearsal with young students in Israel and New York.  Bernstein discusses his belief in tonality, although he delved into atonality in a few works—using it as a negative sort of feeling that was made positive and inspiring by final transformation into the tonal. He also mentions his excitement at the opportunity TV provided him to give millions a better appreciation of music. (By the way, his seven landmark Omnibus TV specials are available in a 4-DVD set.)

The complete ballet La Boeuf sur le toit is an enjoyable bonus performance provided in the extra, filmed in Paris in 1976, and the slides of Bernstein and acquaintances taken during the making of the documentary are also interesting.  The transfer of image and sound is good, although of course the Milhaud performance is in derived surround.

Tim Pfaff
Bay Area Reporter, November 2009

Star Quality

It turns out that there was nothing at all premature about the odd, unprecedented and, in the countless events themselves, jubilant Leonard Bernstein 90th anniversary celebration now ending. Gone but less likely to be forgotten than any other 20th-century musician you could care to imagine, Bernstein was remembered in the way he always made clear he most wanted to be: as a composer, creator of music in the most primal sense. Fittingly, two of the most important documents to appear at the end of the festivities not only keep the focus on Bernstein the composer, but provide welcome new looks at two pieces that remain among his most controversial compositions: the Kaddish symphony and Mass.

Peter Rosen’s film Leonard Bernstein: Reflections, widely screened when it was new in 1978 except, curiously, in the US, finally makes its American debut in a Medici Arts DVD. Fundamentally a documentary of Bernstein’s 1977 trip to Israel to preside over the first-ever retrospective of his music, Rosen’s film begins—almost breathlessly, befitting its subject—with a sweeping chronicle of Bernstein’s meteoric rise to fame.

It’s a story that never loses its fascination, and what Rosen gratefully does not leave out is its quintessentially American A Star Is Born quality. What struck me time and again about the gallery of photographs Rosen uses to illustrate it was how handsome Bernstein was, sometimes breathtakingly so as a young man. It wasn’t what made him Bernstein, but it was one of the ingredients that helped Bernstein become, more than any American musician before him, a star. Surely it contributed to his enormous success in front of the TV cameras, which Rosen also documents superbly.

But the director has much more than a pretty picture on offer, and his view of Bernstein at the zenith of his career is, deliberate or not, of a man struggling. Like the anniversary celebrations just finishing, that first Leonard Bernstein Festival in Israel in 1977 had a hint of the premature about it. No one was more sensitive to that than Bernstein himself. Conspicuous in the generous interview footage is his uncharacteristic verbal fumbling over the honor of the festival itself. At the time the ruler of a musical universe of his own making, Bernstein, like a chain-smoking Dancing Shiva, balked at the prospect of being associated with anything called “retro.”

The reason soon becomes clear. At the heart of the festival is a performance of his Symphony No. 3, the Kaddish, which had taken a critical thumping ever since its premiere in Tel Aviv in 1964. The 1977 “festival” performance marked his first revisions of the piece. His discomfort with the work is as palpable as his dissatisfaction with the Israel Philharmonic’s underweight performance of the monstrously difficult score. It’s nothing like the still-shocking video of his merciless West Side Story rehearsals, but it makes uncomfortable viewing.

Kaddish contains some of his most astringent music (and some of his most ecstatic as well), and in the accompanying interviews Bernstein defends his use of the musical language of the conservatory. “The tremendous agony of the dialogue with God had to be expressed in the expressive manner.” But he’s passionate in his advocacy of tonality (“at the heart of what I do as a composer”), and he makes some predictions about the movement back toward tonality in contemporary music that now sound positively sage.

Both in the interviews and in the rehearsal footage, Rosen’s film captures Bernstein the man, who, behind all the brilliance and bravado, actually wrestles with his God, creator to Creator. It’s nothing short of jolting. The rehearsal footage captures the decisive moment—unchanged from the original version—in which Bernstein’s narrator declares to God, over music of surpassing consonance, “Together [we] exist and forever recreate each other.”

Although there’s comparatively little of Bernstein’s 1971 Mass in his film, Rosen makes explicit connections between the conflicts of doubt and faith, atonality and tonality, in the two works, and those connections are real. The question “I believe in God, but does God believe in me?” remains the one Bernstein is posing in Mass, and the mostly atonal music he uses for the traditional Mass movements still makes uncomfortable listening, while the savvier idioms from the other parts of the American musical palette Bernstein mimicked so masterfully make the fingers snap.

Of all of the composer’s works that have divided audiences and critics, Mass is the one that has most been “rehabilitated” over the last year. It hasn’t changed; we have. No one has been more literally instrumental to making the case for Mass than conductor Marin Alsop, who led New York performances of it that made believers of onetime hecklers. Her new studio recording (Naxos) with the Baltimore Symphony and Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant we’ve all been waiting for rocks [8.559622–23].

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, November 2009

This DVD is an invaluable document for the many legions of Bernstein admirers. By the time he died at the relatively young age of 72, the chain-smoking, intense dynamo that was Lennie had virtually burned himself out. His meteoric rise to national and international fame is the stuff of legend, and it is retold—straight from the horse’s mouth—in this lovingly crafted documentary. The bonus track—a bearded Bernstein (never saw him wear one before this!) gyrating his way through Milhaud’s ballet Le boeuf sur le toit is an unexpected delight. I’ve always loved the piece (though I wish it was shorter). This version—with the French National Orchestra—is the best and most exciting version I can recall.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, October 2009

In 1977, the Israel Philharmonic organized a concert retrospective in Tel Aviv of composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein’s career—an excellent excuse for filmmaker Peter Rosen to capture him in rehearsal and conversation.

The result is a short but deep appreciation of one of the 20th century’s most important musical figures.

We see Bernstein’s two sides—publicly confident communicator and privately conflicted thinker—in perfect balance. We also get a short-and-sweet story of his life to that point, with a special stop for the day in 1943 when, at age 25, he had to step in for an ailing Bruno Walter and conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall for all of America to hear on the radio.

The tidy, 50-minute doc has plenty of Bernstein’s personality as well as snippets of his music. There is a bonus 1976 concert performance of Darius Milhaud’s fun Le boeuf sur le toit with l’Orchestre national de France, where we see a bearded maestro having a grand time.

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10:06:15 PM, 4 September 2015
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