Hear the Famously Controversial Concert Where Leonard Bernstein Introduces Glenn Gould & His Idiosyncratic Performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto (1962)

Some­thing high­ly unusu­al hap­pened dur­ing the New York Phil­har­mon­ic’s con­cert of April 6, 1962. After the inter­mis­sion, just before start­ing the sec­ond half with the First Piano Con­cer­to of Johannes Brahms fea­tur­ing Glenn Gould, con­duc­tor Leonard Bern­stein stepped onto the podi­um and said a few words to pre­pare the audi­ence for what would come next:

You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unortho­dox per­for­mance of the Brahms D Minor Con­cer­to, a per­for­mance dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent from any I’ve ever heard, or even dreamt of for that mat­ter, in its remark­ably broad tem­pi and its fre­quent depar­tures from Brahms’ dynam­ic indi­ca­tions. I can­not say I am in total agree­ment with Mr. Gould’s con­cep­tion and this rais­es the inter­est­ing ques­tion: “What am I doing con­duct­ing it?” I’m con­duct­ing it because Mr. Gould is so valid and seri­ous an artist that I must take seri­ous­ly any­thing he con­ceives in good faith and his con­cep­tion is inter­est­ing enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.

You can hear Bern­stein’s remarks in full in the con­cert record­ing just above. “Why do I not make a minor scan­dal,” he asks rhetor­i­cal­ly, “get a sub­sti­tute soloist, or let an assis­tant con­duct?” Because he was “glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work,” because “there are moments in Mr. Gould’s per­for­mance that emerge with aston­ish­ing fresh­ness and con­vic­tion,” and because “we can all learn some­thing from this extra­or­di­nary artist, who is a think­ing per­former.”

Just as Bern­stein did­n’t agree with the famous­ly (and some­times infa­mous­ly) indi­vid­u­al­is­tic Gould’s much-slowed-down inter­pre­ta­tion of Brahms (though the decades of Brahms schol­ar­ship since have giv­en it more sup­port), many crit­ics did­n’t agree with Bern­stein’s deci­sion to intro­duce it that way. “I think that even though the con­duc­tor made this big dis­claimer, he should not be allowed to wig­gle off the hook that easy,” wrote the New York Times’ Harold C. Schon­berg, who approved of nei­ther the pre­sen­ta­tive choic­es of the con­duc­tor nor the artis­tic choic­es of the pianist. “I mean, who engaged the Gould boy in the first place? Who is the musi­cal direc­tor? Some­body has to be respon­si­ble.”

“At the time I felt that say­ing some­thing like this before a per­for­mance was not the right thing to do,” says famed con­duc­tor Sei­ji Oza­wa in Absolute­ly on Music, his book of con­ver­sa­tions with nov­el­ist Haru­ki Muraka­mi. He hap­pened to be there at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1962, in his capac­i­ty as Bern­stein’s assis­tant con­duc­tor: “When Lenny said in his speech that he could have let an assis­tant con­duct it — that’s me!” Lis­ten­ing to the record­ing again, Oza­wa describes Gould (who would retire from live per­for­mance two years there­after) as hav­ing “an absolute­ly sol­id grasp of the flow of the music,” and adds that “Lenny’s got it absolute­ly right, too. He’s putting his heart and soul into it.” Oza­wa still dis­ap­proves of Bern­stein’s intro­duc­to­ry remarks, but acknowl­edges the spe­cial qual­i­ty of the man who intro­duced him to Amer­i­ca: “From Lenny, peo­ple were will­ing to accept it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

Leonard Bernstein’s First “Young People’s Con­cert” at Carnegie Hall Asks, “What Does Music Mean?”

Spheres Dance to the Music of Bach, Per­formed by Glenn Gould: An Ani­ma­tion from 1969

Watch a 27-Year-Old Glenn Gould Play Bach & Put His Musi­cal Genius on Dis­play (1959)

Watch Leonard Bern­stein Con­duct the Vien­na Phil­har­mon­ic Using Only His Eye­brows

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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