The wide-ranging accomplishments of Leonard Bernstein qualify him as one of the most important figures in the history of American music. As a television personality, he introduced classical music to a generation of viewers. As the composer for WEST SIDE STORY, he revolutionized the sound of Broadway. As a conductor, he has enjoyed the adulation of classical music lovers around the world--an unprecedented situation for an American maestro. Continually in the public eye, this successful and complex man has been viewed as both an admirable role model and a tireless self-promoter.
Believing that “crevices of character have to be explored as fully as the peaks of achievement,” author Joan Peyser does not shy away from controversy. In recounting Bernstein’s growth from an asthmatic child of Russian-Jewish emigres into a highly successful, deeply troubled giant of the music world, Peyser includes such well-known episodes as his dramatic debut leading the New York Philharmonic and his hosting of the infamous 1969 fund-raising party for the Black Panthers. Exploring Bernstein’s milieu, she reveals how composers, managers, musicians, producers, and other “insiders” interact to produce what is heard in performance.
Although BERNSTEIN is a useful source of information, it suffers from a number of serious flaws. Peyser’s erratic narrative often leaps inexplicably from subject to subject, reading more like a hasty assemblage of sketches than a well-organized and insightful portrait. When the author tries to expose a “hidden” Bernstein who is cruel, bisexual, and possibly incestuous, her abrasive tone and unscholarly presentation only serve to focus attention on the book’s dearth of corroborating evidence. Furthermore, her attempts to analyze Bernstein’s character reveal a distressing lack of perspicacity. Clearly, this first major study of an important musician should be approached with some misgivings.