Bernstein’s Concerts for the Young on DVD

A-Bernstein ConcertsBernstein’s Concerts for the Young  on DVD

 From January 18, 1958 at Carnegie Hall to March 29, 1970 at Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center, television history was made when Leonard Bernstein conducted and presented his Young People’s Concerts. For some time, these events were available on several VHS tapes and much treasured not only by those who attended or saw them on television but by children and adults who are interested enough in classical music to want to learn more about it.

Now I am delighted to report that Kultur has two sets of these milestones in educational broadcasting. In the first set, 25 of those telecasts comprise a splendid collector’s edition of 9 DVDs  with the title “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.” With each episode running about 50 minutes, you can see what a wealth of material is contained herein.

Now I really doubt that parents and teachers brought into the concert halls all those youngsters for a mere 50-minute event. Therefore, unless otherwise informed, I can assume that not every minute of those concerts has been kept on the film. I do know that one concert had to be repeated since “technical difficulties” prevented the first talk’s being telecast.

At any rate, the subject matter of the concerts can be sorted into types. There are those dealing with general questions: What does music mean? What is American Music? What is Orchestration? What is Classical music (in both senses of the word “classical”)? There are those dealing with somewhat technical matters: the concerto, Impressionism, melody, sonata form, intervals, modes. There are those about less technical topics: humor in music, folk music and jazz in the concert hall, Latin American music, the sound of an orchestra. (This is my favorite one, in which Bernstein plays Haydn all wrong in his discussion about sytle.)

Some talks are devoted to a single composer and often to just one of his works: Mahler, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Berlioz. There is one about two “bird” ballets, in which the music of “Swan Lake” and “Firebird” are contrasted, a salute to Vienna and its 3/4-time music, and a study of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” One is even devoted to a quiz about spotting things about music.

Bernstein’s explanations are always very clear, but I fear much of it was over the heads of the really tiny tots picked up by the camera looking puzzled, fascinated, and in one case yawning politely into the back of a hand. But in general, the audiences—young and old—seem not only to understand but greatly enjoy the presentations, especially carefully spaced references to the music of the Beatles—just to show that grownups can appreciate “popular” music too.

I was particularly impressed by how well behaved the youngsters were, with the single exception of a wail from an upper balcony in one of the talks. In many cases, I think, the musical examples are far too long to make whatever may be the specific point. For example, as wonderful as it was, perhaps having Walter Berry and his wife Christa Ludwig sing three songs in 3/4 time and in German might have been a little too much for that audience—although viewers of this video will probably play this sequence several times. And you don’t bring such superstars in for only one short number anyway!

The video and sound are as good as they were at the times of the original broadcasts; and the sudden change to color halfway through is thrilling. A booklet is provided with a complete outline of all the track listings and a short synopsis for each of the 25 concerts.

The second volume with 27 concerts given from 1960 to 1970—and I am sure there are still some not yet released.

My only real objection to Bernstein’s approach is that he is far too often talking way over the heads of the youngsters in the audience. Indeed, the camera is merciless in picking up those in the audience playing with their programs, sitting in a daze or in a semi-sleep, and in general wishing they were somewhere else. Actually, I blame the parents for bringing children too young to understand what is going on.

Bernstein is further at fault for choosing musical illustrations that are either too long, too complex, or both, for even the older youth to take in. And when he utters statements like “I am sure that when you think of melody, you think of Brahms,” I wonder if he thinks he is speaking to a group of professional musicians. In fact, he is “sure” of many things that any second thoughts should have dissuaded him from claiming.

That said, this set is, like the earlier one, a super product for us grownups!  His analyses of works like “The Planets,” “Pictures at an Exhibition” (first the piano version, then the Ravel orchestration), and Strauss’ “Don Quixote” are quite good. Among the most interesting is “Bach Transmogrified,” in which one of that composer’s works is played in the original version, followed by an orchestrated one (arranged and conducted by Leopold Stokowski), and then on the Moog Synthesizer. More radical treatments of other Bach works end with a Rock and Roll version. Fascinating.

Of little interest to the younger audience are the nine “Young Performers” concerts in which upcoming conductors (one of whom is Seiji Ozawa) and musicians are invited to perform. Where he can, Bernstein does some explanation of what the piece is about. Better are his talks in which he explains the acoustics of Philharmonic Hall and “The Anatomy of a Symphony Orchestra,” the latter of which uses the four short movements of “The Pines of Rome” to illustrate his topic.

A good point about purchasing any video, especially a relatively expensive one like this, is that it cries out for repeated viewings over the years, especially for educational purposes. Music teachers MUST have this set and show carefully chosen short selections to their classes. Concerned parents would do very well to watch this themselves and encourage their youngsters to watch with them. Any lover of classical music should definitely view both volumes. What the really young in the original audiences might have missed will be most welcome by viewers today.