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Too much Bernstein leaves a critic fed up with his music

Leonard Bernstein in 1982. (Terhune/ AP)

“I hate music! But I love to sing” is the title work in a cycle by Leonard Bernstein of “Five Kid Songs.” It’s meant to be silly and childish and a little bit profound. These days, it sums up the way I feel about its creator.

For most of my life — at least until 2017 — I had a documented affection for American music’s favorite crazy uncle. Bernstein, we all know, is brilliant and maddening and embarrassing and lovable. You roll your eyes, and chuckle, but however much he annoys you, he’s so great you just can’t stop coming back for more.

That was at the beginning of the Bernstein centennial: 3,300-plus events worldwide over two seasons, continuing into 2019, commemorating what would have been the composer-conductor’s 100th birthday in August 2018. Since the National Symphony Orchestra opened its season and the Kennedy Center’s Bernstein celebration with an all-Bernstein program, I have been to Bernstein concert after concert after concert. I have read books, such as his daughter Jamie’s “Famous Father Girl,” an intimate portrait of life with father, which came out in June. I have listened to recordings, such as the boxed set of “Complete Works” (on 28 CDs and 3 DVDs) put out by Deutsche Grammophon.

And I am emerging from this supersaturation with an emotion bordering on healthy dislike. “Hate the man, love the music” is the favorite counsel of music-lovers in such instances (Richard Wagner comes to mind). In Bernstein’s case, I’m no longer sure that I have all that much tolerance for either.

Being a critic, in this case, is a disadvantage. Had I only seen one or two concerts instead of 10, I might feel different. Had I only dipped into a few of the works in the DG box, such as my favorite childhood album, “Wonderful Town,” or tested out only recordings new to me, such as Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s take on “Mass,” I might have enjoyed it more. Admittedly, I was motivated as much by curiosity as by obligation. After a Library of Congress recital alerted me to some of the charms of its score, I even finally listened to “A White House Cantata” all the way through. This enabled me to add my voice to the conventional wisdom that long since wrote off the musical from which the work was salvaged, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” as unperformable — not least because of its attempts to appear racially enlightened, which now seem embarrassingly dated.

After such intense exposure, I’m finding the musical offerings are wearing thin. The only comparable anniversary blowouts I can think of in this field were the Bach year in 2000 (the 250th anniversary of his death) and the Mozart year in 2006 (the 250th anniversary of his birth), And, let’s face it, there was a lot more material there to work with. Bernstein’s reputation rests on his conducting and his teaching, as well as his composing, but the centennial events I’ve attended, as a critic, are focused on his music, and there isn’t all that much of it. In February, I heard three separate performances of the clarinet sonata as three different groups wrestled with the fact that Bernstein wrote hardly any chamber music. Even the wonderful vocal music is getting a little threadbare from overexposure. Furthermore, these concerts are almost uniformly conceived as crowd-pleasers, which means, among other things, that virtually every one ends with some excerpt or arrangement from “West Side Story.” I fully agree that “West Side Story” is a pinnacle of American musical theater, and I never thought I could hear too much of it, but at this point, I start to twitch when I see it announced on a program, even when the performances turn out to be wonderful.

It’s all very well to say that one should separate the man from the music, but in Bernstein’s case, the two are particularly intertwined. The excesses of the man are plainly audible in music that, brilliant as some of it is, is constantly trying to get your attention, prove something about itself, make some kind of statement. There’s no doubt that Bernstein was a smart man and a born musician, but he needed an editor even in his “West Side Story” days — when, according to something he told the conductor John DeMain before the 25th-anniversary production, Jerome Robbins kept him from having the entire dance in the gym and the final scene be entirely sung. “Lenny gave Robbins credit for having shaped it into the great piece that it is,” DeMain said in a telephone interview in the fall. In Bernstein’s later years, he was too great and too self-involved to be edited. When he first heard the rehearsal for his opera “A Quiet Place” in 1983, DeMain says, he began “weeping, snorting, using language — he was just beside himself.” That reaction, which DeMain described as “emotional catharsis,” was not conducive to fine-tuning a work that has remained problematic.

Most people who are familiar with Bernstein’s work have some moment that they find toe-curling. I tend to squirm at his bickering-married-couple pieces, from “Trouble in Tahiti” through to “Arias and Barcarolles,” his final work. Others roll their eyes at his attempts at religious statements in “Kaddish,” in which the narrator engages in a long dialogue with God; or “Mass,” which fuses a hippie-era medley of world religions and idioms (Chilean protest song; a rock band) in a giant feel-good pageant. (It’s notable that “Mass,” to me, has withstood most of my current bout of Bernstein negativity; as I’ve written elsewhere, I learned it by heart when I was too young to know better.)

The people who were close to Bernstein are way ahead of me in working their way through their distaste. To anyone who knows anything about Bernstein, it’s hardly news that he could be hard to take. Yet the affectionate eye-rolling tell-most-if-not-all memoirs that have appeared this year — along with Jamie’s, there’s “On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein,” by his former assistant Charles Harmon, which came out in May — don’t make me love him the way I think they’re supposed to. Both of them draw a picture of a man who often, deliberately and gleefully, behaved badly: drawing on the faces of his hosts at a fancy restaurant with burned cork, entertaining company naked, making inappropriate statements while giving a funeral eulogy, biting and kissing people as it suited him.

“Later, Daddy pulled his old trick: kissing me fully on the lips, then pushing his tongue into my mouth,” writes his daughter Jamie, who has spent much of this year appearing enthusiastically in a host of Bernstein commemorative concerts. “Daddy tried this tongue-kissing stunt on almost everyone. . . . It was a disagreeable experience for sure . . . but my dismay was tempered by knowing he did it to so many others.”

None of this behavior happens in a vacuum. Bernstein’s outrageousness was supported by a large circle of friends and acquaintances and employees, part of a world that has thought it wanted artists to do the things that normal people can’t. It’s hard to feel quite as affectionate about Bernstein’s bad behavior once bad behavior starts being called out for what it is. As for the music: yes, some of it is brilliant, but its manic energy after prolonged exposure no longer feels quite so dazzling. I’ll grant that Bernstein was a very talented person. But I am looking forward to spending some time without him.