- Fionn Reilly
Spring is not the time to be talking about death. Especially this spring. The apocalyptically record-busting winter that had us quaking in its sadistic, frozen-and-repeatedly-refrozen grip until early April has at last retracted its heartless icicle pincers. This afternoon, Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, a near caricature of dignity in his ever-present suit and bowtie, is relaxing on the veranda of his stately campus home with a thick cigar and a cup of sugared tea. Outside, the air is fresh, the birds are singing, and the sun is utterly glorious. And yet right now, here we are, talking about death. And music. "Mahler never got to hear it performed; he died before that could happen," says Botstein about Gustav Mahler's (1860-1911) Ninth Symphony, which as the principal conductor and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, he will stage this month with ASO members and other musicians at the college. The concert is in honor of Bard trustee Murray Liebowitz, who passed last December and left the funding and precise request for the work to be performed at Bard's Fisher Center. " [The work] is about death—just before he wrote it, Mahler had been diagnosed with heart arrhythmia, which was still fatal in the early 20th century—but in this music people also hear a representation of the struggles of life. It has a hard edge, which is disturbing. But it also has a lyrical edge, which is very beautiful." Like life, the Austrian composer's Ninth is a hill-and-dale of emotion, from the tentative, heartbeat-emulating opening movement, through the heights of its animated landler dances and violent dissonance in the two middle movements, through the gut-wrenching, painfully slow final strains of its closing adagio, whose very last, torturously slow notes the creator directed to be played ersterbend ("dying away"). Mahler lost a daughter to scarlet fever and channeled his despair into the writing of the Ninth; after his own daughter died in 1981, Botstein coped with his grief by picking up the baton he'd laid down at the dawn of his illustrious academic career. "The mark of maturity is that we learn to accept our mortality, and yet we persist in our search for immortality," said Leonard Bernstein while lecturing on the Mahler symphony. "We believe." Clearly, the lesson to be learned, both from Mahler's Ninth and spring's rebirth, is that in death there is life.
Botstein's life began in 1946 in Zurich, Switzerland. His parents, both physicians, were Polish-Russian Jews who had fled the Holocaust (his father was the only survivor within his own family; two uncles perished in the Warsaw Ghetto), but were denied citizenship and with it their licenses to practice medicine. So when little Leon, the youngest of three siblings, was two, the multilingual family emigrated to the U.S., settling in a three-room apartment in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale. "My parents were very idealistic, money wasn't important to them," Botstein says. "I don't think they ever stepped inside a Fifth Avenue store. We'd take public transportation into Manhattan and walk by Central Park West, and I knew that that was where the rich people lived. But I never felt deprived, and I never envied anyone for being better off financially." He credits his mother with instilling in him her love of music, which led to his studying violin at age nine. When she began going deaf, it only strengthened his resolve to pursue music. "I saw her being deprived of something she really loved, and my first thought was that I needed to work harder on her behalf." Unfortunately, it soon became clear that her young son, who describes himself as "naturally clumsy," wasn't a virtuoso. "I wasn't very good, but I had a really good teacher, Roman Totenberg," the maestro explains. "He helped me see that since I understood theory well I could use that as a basis to play to my strength, and to consider becoming a composer. I liked the idea of being a storyteller, but I wasn't very motivated to write. I was attracted to the idea, though, that, as a conductor, you can make the stories of others come alive."
Although he may not have been a violin prodigy, Botstein certainly was an intellectual one. Upon graduating from the High School of Music and Art at age 16, he enrolled at the University of Chicago to study history and philosophy. While there, he became the concertmaster and assistant conductor of the university's symphonic orchestra and founded its still-extant chamber orchestra. After studying at Tanglewood, he attended graduate school at Harvard, where he served as assistant conductor of the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra and conducted a group comprised of students and medical professionals. "My parents were 'instinctive patriots' who felt an obligation to 'give back' to their country," Botstein recalls. "That, and the general idealism of the 1960s, made me interested in public service. I won a Sloan Foundation Fellowship in 1969 to work as a special assistant to the president at the New York City Board of Education." Word of his diligence spread, and the following year he was recruited to take over managing Franconia College, an experimental liberal arts institution in northern New Hampshire, making him, at 23 years old, the youngest college president in history. "Franconia was basically a converted old  hotel; some of the students lived in cabins," says Botstein, who while at the school netted grants, constructed dorms and a student union, and established the still-ongoing White Mountain Music Festival nearby. "[The college] was under the protection of Dartmouth, and I had the feeling that some of the trustees thought I'd put the place out of business—'Who's this Boston/New York hippie, and what's he doing up there?' [Laughs.]" Three years after he'd arrived, however, Botstein moved on to the position for which he appears to have been preordained.