Located between the Metropolitan Opera and the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is in a state of celebration. The stakes are high. Foremost there is the “Leonard Bernstein at 100” exhibit, which pays tribute to the charismatic American conductor, multi-talented composer, educator, cultural ambassador, and humanitarian, who always gave it his all.
It was greatly thanks to him that American music lovers became familiar with Gustav Mahler. In fact, there are two Mahler manuscripts now on display, taken from the library’s unique archive collection on the third floor.
The Bernstein exhibit starts with several screens showing Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic at various times of his life. From an early age, until shortly before his death, his involvement with the orchestra members and great enthusiasm remained the same. Hair flying, nodding, acting, shrugging his shoulders, he is part of the orchestra.
His involvement with Tanglewood was legendary. He taught and performed there virtually every summer for fifty years. It was at Tanglewood, two months before his death in 1990, that Bernstein conducted his last concert. Those who attended that performance of Beethoven’s Seventh symphony will never forget its drama, both musical and human, as Bernstein gave his customary dynamic interpretation while gasping for breath throughout.
“What does it take to be a good conductor?” he asks in a video, trying to explain the infinite qualities required. Actually the answer is right here, one flight down, at the exhibit:
Toscanini: Preserving A Legacy In Sound
Considered the greatest conductor of his generation, Toscanini was born to be a conductor. He was renowned for his perfectionism, his ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his unfailing memory. Thanks to the advancement of the recording technique, I pick up the earphones, listen and watch him conduct the NBC orchestra performing Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, at Carnegie Hall. The date was November 3, 1951, which happened to be the first official broadcast.
Ready to return upstairs, I notice that a concert is taking place across the hall at the Bruno Walter Auditorium. I’m just in time to catch The Gotham Jazzmen that perform here every Tuesday, at 12 noon. The place is packed. It’s standing room only. People are swaying to the rhythm, smiling. Even Bruno Walter, the German-born American conductor after whom the auditorium has been named, would have approved.
Having attended numerous concerts, lectures, plays, and special programs at the auditorium over the years, it is only now that I realize that it is part of the library.
When I went to NYU for my master’s degree in musicology, we used the music division at the main library on 42nd Street on Saturdays. The idea of having an entire building at our disposal was unthinkable. A building with high ceilings, sunlight streaming in, with two floors of reading material, a comfortable place to study books, records, and scores, plus an additional floor holding precious archive material, would have been beyond anyone’s wildest dream.
In a way, the attention the two special exhibits receive puts the importance of the library into the background. With or without a membership card, the library is at your disposal.
A public library with a café?
I may quarrel with the overall choice of Amy’s Bread, but there is something to be said about being able to have a bite, or a cup of coffee without having to leave the building. Other than that, I may head over to the café at Alice Tully Hall, or the Indie Food and Wine restaurant at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.
However, my favorite place is the Europan Café, slightly off Lincoln Center, adjacent to the American Folk Art Museum. Chances are I’ll run into a friend, here to have a bite prior or after attending an event at one of the Lincoln Center buildings. Luckily, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is one them.