The Unanswered Question

Our Museletter contributor this month is Dr. Ricardo Rosenkranz, faculty member of McBride’s Magic & Mystery School, owner of the Rhapsody Theater in downtown Chicago, and our own Physician Magician. Ricardo leads us into a new year with a personal story of his empowering experience with an inspirational figure.

The Unanswered Question
“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” – Leonard Bernstein
With this quote from Leonard Bernstein, the new movie Maestro begins to tell the story of the enigmatic, and somewhat turbulent relationship between the brilliant musician and his equally talented wife Felicia. More on the quote later. 
I was privileged to know Leonard Bernstein. We met while I was a medical student in New York, in 1987. For several years, I enjoyed backstage conversations with Maestro Bernstein every time he performed in New York. Going to see him backstage afforded me some of the most special moments of my life in New York City. Whether it was Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, or an occasional outdoor concert in the summer, visiting Lenny backstage was always cathartic. When I was speaking with him, it was as if no one else existed. He was genuinely interested in my life as a medical student and in what I was thinking and experiencing at that time.

One day, after a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection” Symphony, I was feeling devastated. I was a third-year medical student doing my internal medicine rotation, and that day I had lost my first patient; he was a talented twenty-seven-year-old American Ballet Theater dancer. That was New York in the 1980s.
Backstage, Lenny was sitting in a beanbag chair, wearing a silk robe, cigarette in one hand and silver tumbler with a scotch on the rocks in the other. He saw me a bit dejected and asked what was wrong.
“I just lost my first patient, a ballet dancer,” I said. 
“AIDS?” he asked.
I nodded.
He put his cigarette in his mouth, and held my hand as he took a long and pensive puff. Then, speaking with the cigarette to the side, he said, “Mierda.”
Then, he handed me the silver tumbler, “Double R (that’s what he called me), you need this more than I do.” I took the tumbler in both hands and drank, as if I was imbibing a religious drink handed to me by the high priest of the order. 
La vida sigue,” he said in perfect Spanish, life goes on. Turning serious he continued, “Honor his memory with your profession.” Months later I was doing research in Cryptosporidiosis, an infection commonly seen in AIDS patients of that era. 

Leonard Bernstein was as inspirational a person as anyone I’ve met, including Eugene Burger. First and foremost, he was brilliant. His understanding of music was informed by his profound knowledge of history, philosophy, science, and the human condition. And then there was his empathy. He truly was everyone’s friend. His capacity to love transcended beyond the understanding of most. 
As I reflect into the New Year, and being reminded of Bernstein through this new movie, I now see his lessons not just in the realm of medicine, but also in our land of theatrical magic. For one, Bernstein never belittled his audience; instead, he glorified them. From his children’s concerts to the Omnibus TV series, Bernstein always assumed that his audience was smart, engaged, and capable of discovering a deeper layer of meaning in his art. He was at ease discussing Prokofiev and Rachmaninov with eight-year-old youths, enriching their ability to better experience even the most complex music without “dumbing it down.” 
Also, Bernstein was ever the teacher and colleague. He taught in a way that seemed more of a collaboration of thought than a lecture. This is not to say that he wasn’t steadfast with his ideas, which he was, but he allowed room for learning through discovery rather than dogma; a profound way to educate. We would do well to approach our audiences and collaborators with the same passion, empathy, and respect that Lenny offered the people who crossed paths with him. These are simple and effective lessons. 

“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers,” Bernstein said. He understood that all good art is a respectful, passionate, empathetic conversation. And the big insight for me was that I was in as much of a conversation with him during the performance as I was backstage afterwards. 
Looking back at the wonderful year of performances I enjoyed at the Rhapsody Theater in 2023, I have come to understand that I am indeed in a conversation with my audience throughout the evening. And that I do want to instill deep thought and reflection as we move forward in the show. I’m not afraid to challenge my audience intellectually, as they are my cherished equals. Elegant, thoughtful language and complex ideas are understood by everyone, regardless of age. What varies is their lived experience, and how they respond to the conversation in their own terms.

 And isn’t that what a conversation should be? A plethora of responses to an honest question? As Bernstein notes, the true meaning of our art is born of the tension it creates. Tension, even unresolved tension, is important to our own magical art. It awakens our senses.
As I explored Brahms, Prokofiev, and Mahler in my youth, Lenny empowered me. He helped shape the questions I needed to ask. Questions, some of them unanswered to this day, that spilled over into my everyday life. Existential catharsis, I might call it.
These days I hope that audiences visiting my theater walk out with questions, ideas, and empowerment. It is existential catharsis for our times.  Happy New Year to each and every one of you. May you shine bright on stage and may your audience glow in the reflection of your love for them. 

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