Leonard Bernstein conducted his last concert on August 19, 1990 at Tanglewood. The Beethoven 7th was on the program.
A Final Magnificent Beethoven
In what turned out to be his final performance, he did conduct the Britten and the Beethoven, the latter with a special mastery. Those who had seen and heard Bernstein perform innumerable times over the years will never forget the sovereign authority of that interpretation, grave and noble, yet passionate, as well.
Nor can one forget Bernstein’s innate ability to convey musical essence through gesture, in particular, his opening up of his right fist like a sunburst whenever the two flutes entered softly and insistently on high in the Allegretto slow movement. Critics early in his career made fun of his contorted body language. But at his frequent best, his gestures illuminated the music as much for musicians as for audiences.
But one also remembers his look of gasping, pained exhaustion as he walked effortfully toward the wings after accepting the ovations of the audience. He was very ill, as his agonized expression telegraphed.
It was that evening that Bernstein, his manager and his family, most of whom were present, made the decision that he had to withdraw from a long-planned tour of six European cities with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra that was to have begun immediately thereafter.
The decision must have pained him; it certainly pained the young players and the Boston Symphony, which canceled the tour outright. Bernstein had involved himself increasingly in his later years with student conductors and student orchestras, and the Tanglewood program was especially close to his heart. A Boston official described the atmosphere at Tanglewood the following morning as funereal.