They were called "Young People's Concerts," but it is difficult to imagine viewers of any age failing to respond and learn from them.
Between 1958 and 1970, Leonard Bernstein made more than 50 appearances on CBS, exploring and explaining myriad aspects of music while leading what was then "his" orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. Now Kultur International has issued 25 of these programs in a nine-DVD set. The results are extraordinary -- deeply substantial yet unfailingly entertaining hours of television that feature Bernstein at the peak of his powers. Simply put, there has never been a better music teacher.
Those readers who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s will likely have some memories of the programs. For those of us who were raised in rural surroundings, far from concert halls and subscription series, watching and listening to Bernstein take us through music -- whether Beethoven, Strauss, Copland or the Beatles -- was like a passport into another world. Bernstein gave naturally to the television medium; with his concise, cogent explanations, his balletic movements and his infinitely poetic face, he seemed a virtual personification of music.
At the height of the show's popularity, during the years when CBS presented four "Young People's Concerts" a season, the series was also carried in nine European countries -- Italy, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Portugal -- as well as in Argentina, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. In short, these programs changed a lot of lives -- and now they have the possibility of changing many more. Indeed, if you watch one of these programs every night, within a month you will have a pretty good understanding of music, whether or not you play an instrument.
From the very first show -- telecast on Jan. 18, 1958 -- Bernstein took on the big subjects. The initial program was titled "What Does Music Mean?" (it would be followed by other cosmic queries, including "What Is American Music?," "What Is Orchestration?," "What Makes Music Symphonic?" and "What Is a Melody?"), and it included selections from Rossini's "William Tell" Overture, Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony, even the theme from the popular crime drama "Dragnet." On the same show, Bernstein went so far as to present music by the avant-garde Viennese composer Anton Webern (somebody whose work, almost a half-century later, is still considered too far out even for the boutique cable networks that specialize in classical performance).
There had never been anything quite like it, and "The New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts With Leonard Bernstein," as the show was officially known, was an immediate critical and popular success. Variety summed up Bernstein's appeal succinctly: "The Philharmonic's conductor has the knack of a teacher and the feel of a poet," it said. "The marvel of Bernstein is that, like the writer of television melodrama, he knows how to grab attention and how to carry it along, measuring just the right amount of new information to precede every climax."
Initially, the telecasts emanated from New York's Carnegie Hall, but they moved (with the orchestra) to Lincoln Center in 1962. After 1966, all concerts were telecast in color; those who know the Philharmonic's home, Avery Fisher Hall, only since its renovation in 1976 will be startled by the plush, almost purplish hue of the original house.
Watching Bernstein conduct so many years later, one is taken by the unusual combination of different elements that made up his podium manner. His leadership was simultaneously indulgent and impeccably controlled, Dionysian yet carefully thought through. He was Chaplinesque in his pantomime, capable of conveying the essence of a particular measure with such acuity and grace that watching him was like reading a map of the score. At times he wriggled and danced like an orgiastic surfer, carried aloft on waves of sound. But he was capable of tremendous economy as well, employing a tight little beat that was scarcely visible yet produced the necessary results.
Above all, he was directly articulate in his efforts to demystify what still seems to many the most mysterious of the arts. Roger Englander, Bernstein's producer and director, was equally straightforward in his approach to the visual complement. There were panoramic long shots and tight close-ups of soloists, which helped bring a verisimilitude to the occasion. One of Englander's favorite effects was to let the camera pan from face to face in the audience, as Bernstein's audience listened raptly. I can remember the keen sense of envy I felt for those lucky children -- far away in glamorous New York, listening to Leonard Bernstein tell them about music.
"What goes into the televising of a 'Young People's Concert'?" Englander asked rhetorically in an essay that was published in conjunction with the 10th anniversary season in 1968. "The basic formula is a relatively simple one. First assemble more than a million dollars' worth of mobile color television equipment. Combine with 75 highly trained programming and engineering specialists and place everything and everyone in and around Philharmonic Hall. Add a famous conductor narrator in the person of Leonard Bernstein, 106 excellent symphony musicians and shoot for one hour."
As Englander makes clear, the "Young People's Concerts" were terribly expensive to produce -- the union costs alone were prohibitive -- and when Bernstein left the Philharmonic in 1969, CBS quickly lost interest in the program. (A few episodes with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Philharmonic were shown on PBS.) Still, it says much for the public-spiritedness of the old CBS that most of these concerts were originally shown in prime time, a corporate generosity that is almost unimaginable today.
And so here are learned, lively studies of jazz and folk music, tributes to Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, Jean Sibelius and the then-underappreciated Gustav Mahler. A late-1960s flirtation with psychedelia is titled "Berlioz Takes a Trip"; it is very much of its time but still conveys a good deal of information about the "Symphonie Fantastique." Nor was music from Latin America slighted: Bernstein championed works by Carlos Chavez, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Silvestre Revueltas. And, in late 1964, only a few months after their fabled "Ed Sullivan Show" appearances made the Beatles world-famous, Bernstein illustrated sonata form by singing the Lennon-McCartney ballad "And I Love Her," much to the delight of his youthful audience.
One of the finest episodes was titled "The Sound of an Orchestra," first telecast in December 1965. Bernstein begins the hour by conducting a fervent, wildly overexaggerated rendition of the slow movement from Haydn's Symphony No. 88. Immediately thereafter, he stops the applause and pronounces the performance "terrible." He then explains why (preciosity, overinterpretation, too much vibrato), banishes a sizable percentage of the much-too-big orchestra from the stage, cleans up the interpretation and delivers fresh, unmannered Haydn in all his glory. Any listener can hear the difference, and Bernstein has made his point. Indeed, the ease and grace with which Bernstein dispatches real musical information make the "Young People's Concerts" one of his greatest accomplishments, to be prized with "West Side Story" and the best of his recordings.
Bernstein once called these concerts "a dream come true, especially since the sharing is done with young people -- that is, people who are eager, unprejudiced, curious, open and enthusiastic. I hope I shall never have to give these concerts up; they keep me young."
Now, through these remarkable telecasts, most of which have not been seen in decades, Bernstein remains forever young. And, whatever your age and musical training, you will learn much from Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts."
Available from Kultur International. List price is $149.50 for nine DVDs; lower prices elsewhere. Visit www.kulturvideo.com; write to 195 Highway 36, West Long Branch, N.J. 07764; or call 800-573-3782.