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MUSIC : Ned Rorem: Vindicating His Wicked Ways

December 13, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

Ned Rorem greets his friendly inquisitor in an old Hollywood hotel, a legendary hide-out for itinerant artists, writers and actors. The place has seen palmier days.

He shrugs at the flaking wallpaper, apologizes for the lack of space, smooths the dowdy bedspread and arranges himself in a picturesque lotus position.

Sporting a too-tight white turtleneck sweater, carefully accented with a silky scarf, he may not look exactly like the dapper, indecently handsome young innocent with the brooding eyes who adorns the jackets of his books. But he certainly doesn't look like someone who was born in 1923.

If nothing else, Rorem knows how to cultivate an image.

"All of his music may be characterized as lean and firmly elegant." That is the summation of the Rorem entry in the biblical "New Grove Dictionary"--an entry contributed, not incidentally, by his closest friend, James Holmes.

The description, however sweeping, is apt. Rorem wants to be lean and firmly elegant in life as well as in art.

He has been celebrated as a composer, most notably as a composer of lean and firmly elegant old-fashioned songs. He has achieved greater notoriety, however, as a perceptive, clever and often poignant diarist. His fourth volume of unabashed self-indulgence, chronicling the period between 1973 and 1985, has just been published.

The "Nantucket Diary" (North Point Press, $30) offers more than 600 detailed pages of analytical profundity, analytical shallowness, churlish criticism, illuminating criticism, silly gossip, interesting gossip, narcissistic snobbery, petulant musing, elaborate name-dropping, increasingly guarded sexual revelation and assorted tales retold.

Rorem's tone has turned a bit wry and dry. In spite of the intrinsic excess, much of his latest literary effort is lean and firmly elegant. Perhaps the style relates to his florid Gallic orientation as filtered somehow through an adopted New England sensibility.

"What shall we talk about?" Rorem asks amiably.

The diaries.

He is off and talking. "It all began when I was 12, and on my first trip to Europe. I got in the habit of writing things down. You know--'Washed my hair. Saw 'Show Boat.' Love Irene Dunne. Saw Notre Dame. . . .'

"When I started again in 1945, I was in my self-expressive/hideous phase. I showed the snotty, vicious, mean side of me. . . .

"The 'Paris Diary' made me famous. Many people who read it still don't know I'm a composer. By the same token, there are, I think, musicians who still don't know I write diaries."

In response to a skeptical look, Rorem demurs.

"Well, everyone is thrilled that the new diary has an index. Lenny told me there was only one thing wrong: The names didn't have a plus or a minus. That, he said, would have made everything so much easier."

He flashes a naughty, boyish grin.

"Lenny," of course, is Leonard Bernstein. His citation leads to the first of many digressions. In this case, it concerns the less-than-flattering portrait of Bernstein that emerges in Joan Peyser's recent biography. The controversial book alludes, amid many other intimate revelations, to an early liaison between Rorem and Bernstein.

Rorem shakes his head, momentarily shuts his eyes.

"It is not a good book. I say anything to anyone. That isn't the issue. I did grant her an interview. Leonard Bernstein is very much out of the closet. But he wasn't out of it, until now, in print. I resent that she focused so much on personal matters. She did not even describe me as a distinguished composer.

"Before the book came out, I had been asked to deliver the address when Lenny was awarded the MacDowell Medal. I wrote the speech and trembled. It was a eulogy to Lenny as a musician. You can read it. It was reprinted in Ovation magazine last month.

"Lenny arrived and was coolly affectionate. After I spoke, he was in tears. He said my tribute was 'the most eloquent ever.'

"Lenny conducts like a composer. (William) Steinberg couldn't do that. That makes (Bernstein) different. He is right even when he is wrong.

"He's very important. I don't like to see that damaged."

Actually, the speech represents a wild flight of purple hyperbole. Take, for instance, the ending:

"If you want to know how much I love Lenny, listen to my songs. In discussing any great artist, the parts of speech are inadequate. Or, as the poet Wallace Stevens says, 'Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.' And so, precious Lenny, the day is yours, and so is the century. You are what we all would be. The Thing Itself."

Sometimes Rorem gets carried away. His words are elegant, perhaps. But, for once, they are neither firm nor lean.

He sympathizes with the problems arising from Bernstein's versatility as an artist.

"In America, people want you to be compartmentalized. It isn't good to be a jack-of-all-trades, a pre-20th-Century person. If you wear two hats, you are superficial. Was Da Vinci superficial?"

Rorem admits that his diaries, like his music, are not exactly private matters.

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