Starting tonight the Public Broadcasting Service will present Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic from the Musikverein in the nine Beethoven symphonies, the "Missa Solemnis" and other works. As Bernstein tells the television audience, "there is probably no single body of work in the universe of orchestral music that is in any way comparable to this one."
Tonight's "Beethoven/Bernstein" program (at 9 on Channel 26 and simulcast on WETA-FM) does not storm the lofty musical heights that are to come. The centerpiece is that wonderful essay in geniality, the first symphony.
It is almost inconceivable that the combination of this conductor and this orchestra would not produce good Beethoven. If anything goes wrong during the series we'll let you know, but don't count on it happening. Here Bernstein and his players are wonderfully mellow. And they are also, by turns, rollicking, witty, effervescent and playful.
The animated conductor is as photogenic as ever. People will never stop talking about Lenny the Acrobat. They should be ignored. This quality is one of the ways that Bernstein gets greater intensity from an orchestra than most others. Whatever the merits, it is well worth it.
Judging from this first installment, the commentary is more questionable. There are two narrators, Bernstein and actor Maximilian Schell. Starting from the days on Omnibus, Bernstein has always been the master of this art. But Schell's commentary is more of a problem. At one point he asks the question, "Why is it, for some strange reason, in moments of great sorrow we always turn to Beethoven for consolation -- the death of a father or close friend, a great statesman or the senseless slaying of 11 Israeli athletes in the 1972 Olympics?" There are shots of the late Rudolf Kempe conducting the Munich orchestra in Beethoven's Egmont overture before the crowd on the playing field the day after the slaughter. In a superficial way, Schell has a point. The searing performance of the funeral march to the "Eroica" out on that field that day was extraordinarily moving. But in practical terms, what is the value of all of this talk about turning to Beethoven? Why not turn to Mozart or Schubert instead? And what about the vast majority who feel no need to turn to music at all? This kind of inflated nonsense is no way to illuminate great art. It demeans it.
Maybe the problem is simply that there was too much dead time to fill on the first program. The symphonies will get longer as we proceed.
Meanwhile, there is the music to be heard. Bernstein has become so familiar a media presence, especially to Washingtonians, that one can easily confuse the celebrity with the artist. He's not famous because he's glamorous. That's all backward. He's where he is because he's a superlative musician. And we can be expected to be reminded of that time and time again in the coming weeks.