War, the Opulence of “Maestro,” and Crass Materialism

Poster for the film Maestro – Fair Use

It was on a drive through the heart of Albany, New York that I witnessed the feeding frenzy of so-called holiday cheer. Passing by a shopping mall in a nearby city heading down to the capitol district in Albany, the sheer insanity of the buying and selling of the season was apparent. Cars and trucks sped by, as if on some officially appointed emergency. The beauty of the return of the light of the New Year is lessened by the materialism connected to it.

The business I deal with in Albany borders the ghetto of the city. The person I meet at the business keeps the shop’s door locked while working, an interesting aside given the wealth of New York State and the majestic capitol building and ancillary state buildings that populate the area.

A few short blocks from the business I visit is the vast Empire State Plaza, a sprawling mix of high-rise government and office buildings, the massive project of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The project is known for the displacement of hundreds of homes and businesses populated by many first-generation immigrants to make way for the cement towers and plaza. The Neighborhood that Disappeared (2015) catalogues this project as one of the most massive urban “renewal” projects in US history, which seemed, in part, to be a whim of Rockefeller and his displeasure at how New York’s capital city appeared.

The biopic “Maestro” (2023) (New York Times, November 22, 2023) had many New York, primarily New York City, connections in Leonard Bernstein’s life. Bernstein was the music director of the New York Philharmonic and had significant ties to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its summer home at Tanglewood in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. There, besides conducting, he was involved with teaching young musicians and conductors among others. He was perhaps the most well-known musician, conductor, and composer in US history.

Bernstein had ties to the political left in the civil rights movement, was staunchly antiwar during the wars in Southeast Asia, and supported the anti-nuclear movement. He went beyond where many celebrities go in pandering to establishment Democrats, however, he was a strong supporter of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Bernstein’s politics drew the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI with a file cataloging his actions.

Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood, where Bernstein performed, and the expansive lawn that borders the shed, looks out from Lenox to Stockbridge, Massachusetts and Stockbridge Bowl, a lake surrounded by hills, mountains, and forests. In the background at the horizon is Mount Everett, the second-highest mountain peak in Massachusetts. Tanglewood is arguably the most beautiful summer outdoor setting at which to hear music.

“Maestro,” although a good recounting of Bernstein’s life and that of his wife Felicia Montealegre, is missing such a large chunk of history it’s as if Bernstein’s life took place outside of a historical epoch. Gone is World War II when Bernstein, a chain-smoker, was spared from that war by a diagnosis of asthma. That monumental epoch of history was left out of the movie during which Bernstein made his debut as a conductor. Many viewers know the horrific plight of artists in Europe, many of whom, like millions of ordinary people, never escaped the Holocaust and the war. What is shown in “Maestro” is the opulence of the many residences that Leonard Bernstein and his family occupied, including a multi-room mansion in Fairfield, Connecticut.

I live in an area of Massachusetts not far from Tanglewood (New York Times, November 16, 2017). Opulence here has symbolically reached the heights of the massive high-rises about an hour away at the Empire State Plaza. This area increasingly attracts those from out of state who have second homes and who have lots of disposable income made available by stilted federal tax laws on wealth and the absence of state taxes. This trend, which I see right outside my door, has enabled a new generation of the well-to-do to exhibit the ethos of  crass materialism and unbridled ostentatiousness. The feeding frenzy of wealth here involves an almost constant building spree of people who spend only weekends and summers in the Berkshires. Meanwhile, the housing crisis here and elsewhere grows with the working class and part of the middle class left out of the endless party of affluence.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).