Leonard Bernstein lives

When I was studying at the Guildhall in the 80’s, I had the fortune to hear a talk by the late, great Leonard Bernstein. I don’t remember the content now as much as I remember his extraordinary charisma. He was the most wonderful speaker– relaxed, intelligent, warm, provocatively interesting… We all, male and female, fell for for him instantly.

So more recently when I got to hear of the famous “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts” which ran from the late 1950’s into the 70’s, I was interested to take a look. I borrowed the nine-DVD set from the library, and I’m currently undertaking a Leonard Bernstein marathon.

The early episodes provide an amazing glimpse into a vastly different world. Grainy, black and white shots of shiny, eager, immaculately dressed children arriving at Carnegie Hall. Parents in pearls and suits looking so terribly middle-aged it’s hard to believe they were ever young, shiny and eager. Bernstein with dark brilliantined hair, looking a little nervous, and consulting his notes every few words. The New York Philharmonic composed entirely of elderly, balding, Caucasian men with odd physiognomies and funereal expressions.

And yet it’s still enthralling to watch Bernstein captivating his audience almost instantaneously, sometimes with a theme well-known on television at the time (“The Lone Ranger”!) or by analyzing sonata form using a Beatles song (pop music!), sometimes stretching his listeners’ ears and imaginations with Ravel’s La Valse or some Mahler.

While watching, I find myself filled with various thoughts and feelings–” Would this be possible on television now? Would today’s kids be interested if you caught them early enough– before they had been waylaid by media pressure? Why was it a given that all children ought to like classical music– should we be making more effort even now to persuade them of that idea? Those kids are really well-informed! I wish I’d seen these when I was a kid… Ouch, Bernstein is being really condescending about non-Western music… I guess we all were back then… Why does Bernstein refer to all composers as ‘he’ without thinking? I’m glad there are more women in orchestras now… Wow, I’d forgotten he was such an accomplished pianist. He’s an incredible musician…”

My father-in -law shares with me that he used to be glued to the TV when these programs were on, although he had no musical background. He loved having aspects of the music pointed out to him and to be able to discover aspects of structure and instrumentation that would have previously passed him by.

Stimulating and provocative programs. More to follow…

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