Arts: The life that late he led

A year before his death in 1990, Leonard Bernstein came to London to direct his musical Candide, which will be revisited at the Barbican later this month. Edward Seckerson secured this exclusive interview
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Leonard Bernstein has been gone almost a decade now. He would have been 80 this year. He wouldn't have liked it. In an ambitious new television documentary, Reaching for the Note, which airs this Christmas on Channel 4, his son Alexander lays it on the line: "He hated being old." Being old was unexpected; being old was untimely. His spirit was deeply resentful of his sick and ravaged body. At 70, he was young and dynamic and debonair and sexy and charismatic. Only his body didn't know it. Decline was not an option. His spirit inhabited the timeless footage of his past, the sweet and larky home movies, the momentous concerts, the witty and erudite lectures, the glamorous images of superstardom. Each frame of Susan Lacy's film tells the same story. He reached for the note and seized it. Letting go was not part of the deal.

In 1989, a year before his death, Bernstein came to London to direct the London Symphony Orchestra and an all-star cast - led by Jerry Hadley and June Anderson - in concert performances, and for a recording of his most troublesome but much loved offspring, Candide. His friend and disciple, John Mauceri, had worked tirelessly reconstituting a show that, over the years, had gathered more collaborators and undergone more revisions than it had enjoyed performances.

Candide may well be unstageable, the best of all possible productions existing only in the imagination. But its dazzling score - affectionately plundered from the storehouse of European operetta (with a dash of Broadway for added astringency) - has a life force all of its own. When New York remembered Bernstein in the months following his passing, Carnegie Hall mounted an official tribute. An orchestra drawn from Lenny's ports of call around the music world (New York, Boston, London, Israel, Vienna, Italy) sat in readiness. The door to the conductor's room opened - and closed. No one came through it. But seconds later, the overture to Candide spontaneously combusted and everyone jumped to its tune.

Doubtless, the irrepressible Bernstein spirit is planning a similar coup at the scene of his last London triumph when Kent Nagano revisits Candide at the Barbican on 18 and 19 December. For Jerry Hadley and June Anderson, to say nothing of the LSO, the sense of deja vu will be overwhelming.

Flashback. This month, this week, nine years ago. Final rehearsals are in full, or at least partial, swing. London is in the grip of a flu epidemic. One by one, members of the cast are succumbing. Bernstein himself, valiantly fighting a chest infection, can be heard hoarsely (in that inimitable baritonal croak) filling in the missing vocal lines. He is harassed, he is tetchy, down but definitely not out: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm in a foul mood, but we're all going to have such fun!" This is the first of many quotes I hungrily jot down from my vantage point in the Barbican Hall stalls. In minutes I shall be escorted backstage for my first, and sadly last, audience with the great man himself.

The sheer weight of expectation begs disappointment. Cursory introductions are made. The maestro's initial greeting is none too promising: "I've been instructed on pain of death to honour this interview." But he offers a compensatory half-smile. I offer lame reassurances, nervously switching the focus to one of the enduring glories of the Candide score, rarely heard before now. This is Candide's bitter-sweet aria of disillusionment, "Nothing More Than This", supported and enriched by the most ennobling of string counterpoints. My compliment is over-effusive, but it has Bernstein's ear. "I'm glad you like it", he says, "It's my Puccini aria. Everyone should write one Puccini aria - this is mine! You know, I could never convince the producers of its importance... `Cut it,' they said, `it comes too late in the evening,' they said. `That's the whole point,' I said. The same thing happened with my original Act 1 finale. `Too expensive, too impractical,' they said. I imagined this spectacular Eldorado scene, the most beautiful and ironic scene in the show. You know, `One Hand, One Heart' from West Side was originally written for this scene. In it, Candide finds his dream world and his dream girl only to leave it all behind for the wretched Cunegonde, whom he eventually sees, of course, for what she really is - a weak, faithless woman turned whore. So you see how important it is for Candide to get his aria of bitterness and disappointment in that final scene..."

I do, I do. The one sure way to Bernstein's heart, I'd been told, was through his scores. True enough, to give Bernstein - the composer - his due, to express even a modicum of enthusiasm for his music, leave alone a desire to discuss it in detail, provoked an almost child-like gratitude. The clock was running. So was the tape machine.

To listen to that tape again now, with hindsight, is to understand how deeply it hurt him that so few of his peers, many of them friends, took any of his compositions seriously. Small wonder my humble assertion that his theatre-piece Mass might yet be recognised as his most significant (and shamefully underrated) work met with such a characteristically audacious response. "Seminal" was the word I used. "Seminal," he replied. "That's a critic's word, but I might just kiss you on the lips for saying it!"

There's a passage in the "Sanctus" of Mass - a song about the writing of a song. The Celebrant plucks tentatively at his guitar. He finds an E - a "mi". But "mi alone is only mi". He adds a second note, a G (sol), and it's the right note, it's "mi with sol". And suddenly "a song is beginning to grow, take wing, and rise up singing". It's the very essence of Bernstein - a melody created in the singing of it, a melody with aspiration and reach. A universal song for a universal opus. Mass came upon us just as the hopes and new-found innocence of the Sixties were fading. It was Bernstein's search for lost faith, his rallying call to humankind; it was a grand, theatrical reassertion of his belief in the power of music to transcend religious, political, social and cultural barriers, to heal and to reunite. It was his creed, as musician, as a human being. And it, like him, was ridiculed.

Part of the problem with Mass (at least in the ears of the musical establishment) was its mad, jubilant eclecticism. A composer's music is rooted in experience, and Bernstein needed to experience it all - jazz, Broadway, Classicism, Expressionism, popular song, Hebraic chant, gospel, Latin, rock, swing - just name it. But perhaps "eclectic" is the wrong word. Perhaps "evolutionary" is better. Everything comes of something else - Bernstein truly believed that. Look at Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, he would say: "one of our century's most revolutionary pieces, but I can trace back bar after bar, page after page, passages straight out of Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Ravel, and so on. It's almost embarrassing. Music evolves."

And he was able to take hold of that concept and absorb it into his own compositional procedures. A work such as Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion is entirely self-perpetuating, one idea begetting another in a kind of miraculous melodic chain-reaction. In Symphony No 2, The Age of Anxiety, a set of variations becomes the metaphor for a dream odyssey. Bernstein revelled in the gamesmanship of composition, but at close of play it was always the spirit that moved. Out of formality came informality, out of complexity clarity, out of dissonance consonance. He enjoyed lending soul to serialism, pulling a torch song out of a tone row.

He was always, in a sense, "on stage". His way with words was the most finely tuned of all his gifts. Songfest - a celebration in song for the American Bicentennial of 1976 - is as overtly theatrical (and as accomplished) as anything he conceived for the Broadway stage - an American opera in the making. Or "Notes Toward an American Opera", as he once considered calling it. It was always his dream that the American musical should evolve in this way. At the time of his death, a major operatic project - a multi-lingual piece about survival and survivors - was taking shape. This was to be his attempt to make sense of the half-century that began when Hitler marched into Austria. As ever, Bernstein sought catharsis through his art. As ever, time was his enemy.

But was he a nagging optimist or a hopeful pessimist? The answer may be contained in one perfect little song that he wrote with Betty Comden and Adolph Green for On the Town: "Where has the time all gone to?/ Haven't done half the things we want to/Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time..."

18, 19 Dec, Barbican, London (booking: 0171-638 8891)