February 24, 2024

In 1955, Leonard Bernstein explored the art of conducting on an episode of the CBS show “Omnibus.” After leading a studio orchestra through the opening bars of Brahms’s First Symphony, Bernstein walks away from the podium and turns to the camera, leaving the orchestra to continue playing behind him. “Well, you see, they don’t need me,” he says, with an ironic smile. According to Bernstein’s script, the musicians were supposed to have devolved into dissonant chaos. On the broadcast, though, they carry on creditably for another twelve bars. This is a more plausible outcome: with signals from the concertmaster, an ensemble can navigate standard repertory on its own, as the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has proved for decades. The New York Philharmonic has a tradition of playing Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture with no one on the podium—no one visible, at least.

Conductors are still necessary, as Bernstein goes on to explain. They not only guide performances but mold interpretations in rehearsal, monitor standards, evaluate auditions, attend to administrative matters, raise money, and shape the repertory. The most spectacular modern instance of that phenomenon was, of course, Bernstein himself. In 1984, when I was fifteen, I watched the legendary Lenny rehearse Mahler’s Second Symphony at National Cathedral, in Washington, D.C. I had the impression of a superhuman aliveness—a dire, sweaty passion for music and sound. Afterward, I had a momentous conversation with the great man. Bernstein replied, “I have a son named Alexander.” That was it. I felt vaguely blessed nonetheless.

Throughout his life, Bernstein was mocked for his physical flamboyance on the podium. On “Omnibus,” he said of the conductor’s responsibility to the players, “He must make them love the music as he loves it.” If he goes all out, so will the musicians. Indeed, Bernstein did his dance whether or not an audience or a camera was present.

Bradley Cooper’s new movie “Maestro,” a portrait of Bernstein’s marriage to the Costa Rican American actress Felicia Montealegre, has a scene that features the Mahler Second and takes place in a cathedral—Ely Cathedral, in England. Cooper, who stars as Bernstein, is presiding over the vocal-orchestral conflagration with which the symphony ends. Cooper’s impersonation falls short of the real thing, as it must; his gestures are more angular and herky-jerky than Bernstein’s, less flowingly assured.

In later decades, Hollywood’s friendliness toward classical music dwindled. Pop music, in contrast, is generally treated as a medium of liberation and fulfillment, even if its practitioners are destroyed in the process. Hollywood wields hegemonic power, yet, like many a right-wing politician, it likes to cast itself as the valiant opponent of phantasmagoric élites.

Notably, “Maestro” spurns that facile pathologizing process. “Maestro” is persuasive as biography in large measure because Bernstein doesn’t actually have to carry the story. The pivotal character is Montealegre, whom Carey Mulligan portrays as an outwardly poised, inwardly smoldering woman who resists being engulfed in her husband’s shadow. The scenes between the two, whether flirtatious, enraged, or regretful, are uncomfortably intimate to watch; so, too, are the anxious cavortings of their children. The authors of the “Maestro” screenplay—Josh Singer and Cooper himself—stay almost maniacally close to the biographical record. The film begins and ends with simulations of Bernstein’s 1980 interview with Mike Wallace, for “60 Minutes.” Other scenes re-create extant documents more or less verbatim: Bernstein giving instructions to Jerome Robbins during the gestation of the ballet “Fancy Free”; Edward R. Murrow interviewing the Bernsteins in 1955; the conductor’s rambling conversations with the critic John Gruen in the late sixties; the quasi-coming-out speech that Bernstein delivered to a bewildered Philharmonic audience in 1976.