Bernstein Redux: TV Youth Concerts A Lasting Treasury

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Leonard Bernstein educated a generation of music lovers with his Young People's Concerts.
Leonard Bernstein shared his vast knowledge during his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.
By Richard S. Ginell

For those of you under 50, there was a time when classical music could be seen somewhat regularly on television in prime time. We’re speaking, of course, of the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts with Leonard Bernstein.  

All but one of Bernstein's Young People's Concerts are available.
All but one of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts are available.

They became a household word, an inspiration to millions of potential music lovers, and a fixture in popular culture, name-checked by the song parodist Allan Sherman, Charles Schulz in Peanuts, and even The Flintstones. There have been successors to the Young People’s Concerts on television, like Wynton Marsalis’ four-part Marsalis On Music and Michael Tilson Thomas’ recently concluded series Keeping Score; the latter was actually a big leap forward for the genre. None, however, have had the influence of the Bernstein programs.

After an exhaustive process of locating and remastering the tapes, and securing innumerable rights from various persons and their estates, 25 of Bernstein’s 53 Young People’s Concerts were released by Sony  in 1993 on VHS tapes (and on laser discs in Japan) to general rapture, more than 20 years after the last one aired in 1972. But it took another 20 years before the Leonard Bernstein Office and Kultur – which reissued the original 25 on DVDs in 2004 – could release 27 more programs, now available in a 9-DVD set, “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Vol. 2.” And there is still one episode missing, a program focusing on Copland’s opera for students, The Second Hurricane. Perhaps the kinescope hasn’t turned up yet, or was the quality of what they had so poor that it could not be restored?

Bernstein devoted one program to music by Paul Hindemith.
Bernstein devoted one program to music by Paul Hindemith.

The latter thought came up often while watching the 27-or-so hours of broadcasts, for the reproduction from the black-and-white kinescopes of 1960 to full-color videotapes of 1972 veers wildly (the first volume was also highly variable but not by this much). Two of the earlier programs in particular, “The Sound of a Hall” and “The Genius of Paul Hindemith,” look and sound like bootlegs from an amateur video taper’s closet; one wonders to what lengths the digital restoration crew had to go through  ] to get them to look this legible. Perhaps official kinescopes could not be found and Kultur had to make do with whatever it could get.

Even though the programs after 1961 were pre-recorded for broadcast at a later date, this is live television – and so, for example, we see Lenny’s baton flying off into space during some superheated passages (it happens at least twice!), which forces him to revert to his old technique of conducting with his hands. When the series at last goes from black-and-white to color at the late date of 1967, the prints improve remarkably, and the later programs are amazingly vivid for videotape stored that long. They look better now on today’s HD flat-screen equipment than when they were first broadcast.

Charles Ives was the subject of a full Young People's concert.
Charles Ives was the subject of a full Young People’s concert.

One is struck by how Bernstein trusts his young audience, a trust that grows through the years as if he actually were teaching a continuous course on music instead of isolated television shows. He assumes that they recognize Glière’s “Russian Sailors’ Dance,” which was going out of fashion even then. He doesn’t hesitate to immerse them in some of the most challenging music of the time. It’s fascinating to watch the reaction to Vladimir Ussachevsky/Otto Luening’s Concerto for Tape Recorder and Orchestra; the kids whisper and talk, even laugh at times, but nobody boos like their elders did when Bernstein played John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis a few years later. He exposes them to Babbitt, Nono, Webern, a whole program on Hindemith. His program on Charles Ives – which I remember seeing as a child – was the first time many of us had ever heard his music, and it probably did more to crystallize the Ives boom than any other single event.

Bernstein’s powerful antennae were continually attuned to what was in the air, and the wildest outgrowth of that is his program on the “suddenly hip again” J.S. Bach (spoiler alert: it includes guest appearances by Leopold Stokowski, a Moog synthesizer, and the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble). On the other hand, despite his embrace of rock, he can be condescendingly dismissive toward “electronic (sic) guitar” players, and today’s audiences will wince at his declaration of surprise that Sylvia Caduff, a female guest conductor, is actually good.

Andre Watts was 16 when he played Liszt on a Young People's concert.
André Watts was 16 when he appeared on a Young People’s concert.

Although both Vols. 1 and 2  have several programs focusing upon a single composer or work, Vol. 1’s programs otherwise tend to lean in the direction of basic musical concepts (“What is Sonata Form?”, “What Does Music Mean?”, etc.) while Vol. 2 encompasses all of the annual Young Performers episodes. The latter programs seemed like the least interesting ones back then, but watching them today is a revelation of things to come and things that never were. You can see the unknown 30-year-old Claudio Abbado already displaying the graceful, sophisticated technique of a master; 26-year-old Seiji Ozawa, with his pre-Beatle haircut, turning in a sparkling Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro Overture; a 16-year-old Lynn Harrell looking intent and serious, maybe a bit scared. The legend of André Watts’ debut with the New York Philharmonic at 16 is amply confirmed here; he is simply amazing in the Liszt Concerto No. 1, both in the thunder of his octaves and in his feather-touch pianissimos. (Bernstein is at a rare loss for words in his intro.)

Yet the majority of these talented young performers faded into oblivion, and one had a life story that is truly heartbreaking. The 14-year-old cellist Lawrence Foster – whom Bernstein introduces as “an authentic genius” – was murdered at 26 while selling cars in Atlanta (forever to be confused with Lawrence Foster the well-known conductor), leaving no available recordings other than this precious videotape of him playing the Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 1 with fire and soul.

So one can be thankful that this material actually exists at all, in whatever condition, for this compact box is a treasure chest of musical history revolving around the personality and imagination of one magic man. Try not to peek at the booklet outlining each episode; just let yourself be swept along by the insights and surprises that Bernstein has up his sleeve.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.