Leonard Bernstein: A New Yorker in Vienna
Curated by Werner Hanak and Adina Seeger
Jewish Museum Vienna, Judenplatz
17 October 2018 to 28 April 2019
Bernstein im Wien.
This precious, pithy exhibition (just the two rooms) is based at the Jewish Museum’s Judenplatz site and focuses on Leonard Bernstein’s relation to Vienna, and in particular on his work with the Wiener Philharmoniker, which he conducted, off and on, from 1966 until his death in 1990.
There are several photos of Bernstein (including some photos of him working in Israel, or Palestine as it once was, in the late ’40s and early ‘50s), alongside videos of him vigorously conducting (fulsome gestures, arms a-waving) the Wiener Philharmoniker. There are lots of archival artefacts – letters and telegrams and books with inscriptions – including even some of Bernstein’s clothing. He wore Trachten jackets when in Vienna – as, so he said, ‘a therapy against German nationalism’ – but not Lederhosen, or at least there are no examples of him wearing Lederhosen here. Which is a relief.
In the flyleaf of one book, he ends a cordial message by signing off as a ‘Juden im Hemd’. It is an interesting phrase, being an allusion to an Austrian dessert called ‘Mohr im Hemd’, which translates literally as ‘a black person (i.e., a moor) in a shirt’ (picture, if you will, a white linen shirt). The dessert, still commonly available under that name in contemporary Austrian restaurants, is basically a chocolate pudding surrounded by vanilla sauce; whipped cream is optional.
This signature inscription stood out for me as being at once witty, bleak and sharp. It gives you a sense of Bernstein’s intelligence and perception, even his self-perception. He was one of those people one whom nothing is lost. He picked up on everything. And when in Vienna, he was never entirely at ease. He knew what kind of culture he was operating in (a casually racist, Lebkuchen tinderbox, as March 1938 showed).
Bernstein is a great, still under-appreciated composer and he was as well a magnificent educator, a splendid populariser of classical music. As a conductor he was forceful and energetic, if a bit eccentric.
If you go to the exhibition, do spend also a few moments contemplating Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial, located a few yards outside the museum. Books turned inside out, their titles hidden. It becomes more moving as you contemplate it.
Further details of Leonard Bernstein: A New Yorker in Vienna can be found here.