by D. Kern Holoman
The term “radical chic” was invented to describe Leonard Bernstein.
Tom Wolfe’s “That Party at Lenny’s” was an irreverent look for
New York magazine at a 1970 fund-raiser held in the Bernsteins’
Park Avenue penthouse for the Black Panther Party. Few figures
in orchestral history can have anguished so much as Bernstein did
over personal identity and the place of one’s music in the world
at large. Raised in the heady liberalism of Harvard and Franklin
Roosevelt, mentored by Copland and his progressive political and
social views, he could not resist the notion of podium as pulpit. The
Palestine Philharmonic had begged him to stay, in 1946, since he
spoke Hebrew and was a Zionist at heart; in 1948 he led them for
two months, thirty-five concerts, during the War of Independence.
Later, in New York, he was devastated by the assassinations of
the 1960s, and bitterly and sometimes incoherently opposed
everything about the Ronald Reagan administration. He features
in the Watergate tapes of September 1971, on the occasion of the
Mass he had composed to a commission from Jacqueline Kennedy
to inaugurate the Kennedy Center. President Nixon, tipped by
his security apparatus as to the work’s pacifist theme, skipped the
premiere and in a follow-up discussion was told of Bernstein’s
weeping onstage after the performance and kissing everybody in
sight, “including the big black guy” (Alvin Ailey, the choreographer).
Nixon responded, “absolutely sickening.”
From The Orchestra: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 125.