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MUSIC : Look Out, It's Lennymania! : Unrestrainable in life, Leonard Bernstein gets a no-holds-barred 75th-birthday party, celebrating his music and legend in a flurry of videos, concerts and, um, coffee mugs

July 25, 1993|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is a free-lance writer based in New York.

NEW YORK — Next month, Leonard Bernstein would have turned 75, and it is hard even to imagine the level of extravagance the celebrations might have reached were he still alive. Nearly everything about Bernstein--the good and bad--bespoke an excess that seemed only to increase with each passing year. And nothing quite became him like a party.

But it has been nearly three years since his body could finally take no more cigarettes, Scotch, sexual indulgence, conducting, piano playing, recording, teaching, composing, traveling, writing, late-night philosophizing, political agitating, enduring his famous self-doubting bouts of insomnia, or submitting to the perennial demands of celebrity. It might seem time for America's most famous and indefatigable classical musician to finally get some rest.

That's generally what happens when conductors die. "The conductor needs first and foremost to have the live, physical presence," said Leonard Slatkin, musical director of the St. Louis Symphony and a conductor often associated with Bernstein's music. "No one pays much attention anymore to Herbert von Karajan," he noted of the German conductor who died shortly before Bernstein and was the most powerful conductor in Europe, "let alone to someone like Eugene Ormandy, who used to be such a major figure."

But Bernstein, who broke all the rules and became larger than life, has broken one more, and, remarkably, become larger than death. The calendar of official events of the Leonard Bernstein 75th Birthday Commemoration, published by the Leonard Bernstein Society, runs six double-column pages of small type, listing concerts slated and innumerable recordings and videos, old and new, to be released between June 1 and Nov. 14, the third anniversary of Bernstein's death. From Mexico City to Maastricht, Netherlands, from Bombay, India, to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, to Beverly Hills and just about everywhere in between you will be able to hear concerts commemorating Bernstein's music. If you happen, on the actual birthday, Aug. 25, to be in Rimini, Italy, or in New York City or at the Hollywood Bowl, you will be able to attend birthday observances.

Even if you only happen to be vegetating near a television set on Aug. 25, you will be able to participate in the celebration: On that date, Sony Classical, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution and the Leonard Bernstein Society, will begin releasing, for the first time on home video, 25 of the legendary "Young People's Concerts" Bernstein broadcast on television for about a dozen years, beginning in the late '50s.

The release of the "Young People's Concerts," which haven't been seen except at special screenings since their original broadcasts on CBS, have generated a terrific amount of interest, especially among the Baby Boom generation that grew up with them. Although the release is still more than a month away, the New York Review of Books has already run a major appreciation of them. In addition, the Atlantic ran a cover story in June on Bernstein, stimulated in great part because of the release. At a time when it is next to impossible for a classical musician to get on the cover of a mass circulation American magazine, for Bernstein to retain that kind of interest well after his death is extraordinary.

There is much that lies behind this Lennymania. Some of it is sheer everyday commercialism. Bernstein's was the most documented career ever in classical music, and there is a seemingly bottomless pit of marketable materials for reissue. The marketability is also enhanced by a current nostalgia vogue, especially for the '50s and '60s when Bernstein was such a dashing figure. It seems hardly a coincidence that the New York Philharmonic attracted considerable attention last month when it presented a "Remembering Lenny" tribute, while across the Lincoln Center plaza New York City Ballet was filling its theater nightly by trucking in similar nostalgia and bringing back Balanchine.

Certainly commercialism explains some of the ongoing Bernstein glut--and some of its more questionable extremes, such as the selling of Bernstein coffee mugs by what has become a complex Bernstein cottage industry run by the family. The profits, however, help finance more worthy enterprises such as the Leonard Bernstein Center for Education through the Arts in Nashville, Tenn. There is even a quarterly newsletter, "Prelude, Fugue & Riffs," published by the Leonard Bernstein Society for "the friends of Leonard Bernstein," which means anybody who asks for it.

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