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Lenny - 10 Years On, with DAVID WILKINS


Writing a programme note about Bernstein back in 1997 -- when there were good reasons for optimism about events in the Middle East -- I conjectured about how his political idealism and passionate concern for peace would have been cheered by the encouraging developments. Well -- it's a matter of absolutely no concern that a critic should find himself hoist with his own petard but how tragic it is that, as I come to reflect on the tenth anniversary of his death, the region's need for his kind of world-embracing humanitarianism is still so starkly highlighted.

Bernstein was an unwavering supporter of Israel -- there is, indeed, film footage of him weeping with the emotion of a visit to the Western Wall after the 1967 war. His commitment to the Palestine, later Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was always as much a question of racial loyalty as of professional satisfaction. In 1995, when I was privileged to attend the first Leonard Bernstein International Conductor's Competition in Jerusalem, it was clear in what high esteem his memory was held among a vast number of the city's population extending way beyond the predictable artistic set. Sadly, however, what was designed to be a series of annual music competitions in his name soon fell victim to the kind of control and funding wrangles that beset such events in even much less volatile locations. I gather from the Leonard Bernstein Society that no major events were scheduled to commemorate the anniversary in Jerusalem this year.

Just as well -- you can almost imagine Bernstein saying -- when the people have more urgent preoccupations. And yet....? One of the things which so singled him out was the obsessive belief (not career-driven or as part of a woolly sentimentalist's homily) that music really matters to the health of individuals and societies and certainly not less so in times of conflict and despair. I suspect, therefore, that he might have had more than a passing sympathy for the ambitions of the underdogs in this, as in all, situations. Black and white alone never appealed to him -- there was always likely to be a touch of colour wherever he went -- a blood-red pocket handkerchief perhaps. You certainly could never imagine him supporting the stone-throwers but he might well, perhaps, have been willing to weigh their threat and have a doubt or two. Who knows? Nevertheless, his abiding optimism about humanity was centred on the knowledge that people can change and the faith he constantly reaffirmed throughout and with his professional life that music and the arts can help that change to be for the better: 'It is the artists of the world, the feelers and the thinkers who will ultimately save us; who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing and shout the big dreams.'

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Copyright © 31 October 2000 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK





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