Back in my freelancing days, I played in an orchestra with a gambling problem.
No, not March Madness brackets or Fantasy Football drafts. These bets surrounded the conductor, and one element of his time atop the podium each concert. Actually, the bet was about just that: his time on the podium. This conductor was notorious for delivering the longest, most meandering pre-performance soliloquies any of the musicians had ever been subjected to, and the most epic of these during my tenure clocked in at…wait for it…just over 40 minutes.
Students waiting to purchase tickets to the Leonard Bernstein Benefit Concert in Ann Arbor on October 10, 1988. Photo from UMS Archives.
These exhaustive (and thoroughly exhausting) preambles were ostensibly for the benefit of the audience, to deepen their understanding and enjoyment of the music, you understand. Though capable with his baton, this Chatty Cathy in tails somehow lacked that one, essential social skill: recognizing the moment an entire concert hall and all the musicians on stage have simultaneously glazed over as though auditioning for TheWalking Dead, en masse.
The one-two punch of this verbal anesthesia was 1) The orator appeared more infatuated with his own factoids than the experiential welfare of his hostages, and 2) Condescension permeated the delivery to such an extent that “mansplaining” doesn’t quite capture it. This was “splain-splaining.”
The thing is, classical music already has a(n image of) superiority problem. Which is to say, the uninitiated largely assume that those of us who seek this music out have participated in Ken Burns-level research on the subject and undergone extensive training with Clint Eastwood to perfect the glare reserved for mid-symphony clappers. The truth of the matter is that it’s familiarity that emboldens and vitalizes our love of these pieces, not the ability to identify augmented-sixth chords on the fly.
Leonard Bernstein. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.
Familiarity is something with which my conductor was unconcerned. It is also something Leonard Bernstein cultivated in perhaps his most enduring legacy, the Young People’s Concerts of 1960–1972.
I am of the opinion that these broadcasts are more important than any of the conductor-composer’s many recordings, his Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Berlin Wall, or his Mahler at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. He snagged a CBS prime time slot for three of his 13 seasons, for crying out loud. But why do I, and maybe you, and so many of my professional contemporaries remember with such relish a parent bringing home these VHS tapes from the library? Why are the segments uploaded to YouTube littered with the delicious pangs of nostalgia for these presentations? (Personal favorite: “Grew up on this. Sigh. Better than ANY college Music 101 course anywhere ever.”)
I think Bernstein’s approach to music advocacy and enlightenment can be best summed up in his narration to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (CBS Great Performances, 1982). Departing from the usual introductions to the cat/bird/duck/wolf/grandfather themes, Bernstein poses each audio snippet as a pop quiz, congratulating the listener with, “Right again!,” and, “You’re batting a thousand!” There is empowerment and affirmation in his belief in your knowledge, and a gentle expectation that you’ll be back for more.
Leonard Bernstein and kids. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives.
This familiarity with the audience and conversational delivery is all over the Young People’s Concerts, from the grainy black-and-white films of the early 1960s up through the groovy color broadcasts (and neckties) of the early 1970s. Even the title suggests a level of maturity lacking in many or most of the kid-centered events I’ve come across in concert halls around the US.
Bernstein didn’t play it safe in these shows, either. “The Genius of Paul Hindemith” sounds like the punchline to an undergrad viola joke, given how under-appreciated the composer (and champion of the viola) continues to be. And yet, in this episode, Bernstein pulls apart the right and left hands of the Three Exercise Pieces for piano to illuminate the concept of cross-relationships and poly-tonality. These are not concepts most civilians will be aware of, but by drawing a parallel to Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, what was opaque becomes transparent. It is a discovery, an unveiling…not a lecture.
Have you ever experienced that oh-so-cringe-y moment at a kids’ concert, when the speaker attempts to update the themes of the music with a tenuous reference to pop culture? Kill me now. Bernstein, though, so genuine in his love for the symphonic repertoire and eager to share why, manages to equate the psychedelia of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with that of the Beatles without ever slipping into the aforementioned pandering. “[It’s] the first musical description ever made of a trip…” the conductor tells the 1969 audience.
If decades have elapsed since you last watched one of these brilliant broadcasts, let me assure you that not only do they hold up exceedingly well — there is even more to be mined in watching them as an adult. I found myself gasping while watching the “Who Is Gustav Mahler” episode, having recently read a collection of Bernstein’s personal correspondences in which his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, writes: “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” This letter is of course in reference to Bernstein having told Montealegre that he was gay, and watching his passionate description of Mahler (a far lesser-known composer in 1960, when the piece aired) as a man living two disparate lives, simultaneously, is simply heartbreaking.
Leonard Bernstein meets with students at the Leonard Bernstein Benefit in Ann Arbor in 1988. Photo from UMS archives.
This essay isn’t about pining for “the good old days,” though. For instance, a scan of the New York Philharmonic musicians in these videos reminds the viewer just how monochromatic, and what a “bro-down,” was the roster. And to be fair, the Young People’s Concerts landed its primetime slot in large part because the FCC had its undies in a bundle about the lack of wholesome programming. What Bernstein did better than anyone before or since, though, is to make the sharing of musical knowledge a centerpiece, rather than a side-hustle, of his time at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. Add to that an irrepressible desire to share his enthusiasm and delight in this music, and you have a legacy that defies the Cocker Spaniel-esque attention span of history.
P.S.: If you’re hungry for something new in the vein of the Young People’s Concerts, check out the TED Talk by Bernstein’s protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas, and then chase down his excellent Keeping Score series.