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.”
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.