Young People´s Concerts

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

"It seems amazing to us now that Bernstein convinced a major television network to invest the time and money to present as sophisticated and 'non-commercial' a message as this"--(The Young People's Concerts)--"let alone a series that was so unswervingly dedicated to sharing the idea of artistic excellence," comments Michael Tilson Thomas in an introduction to the book based on the maestro's Emmy and Peabody award-winning televised lectures with the New York Philharmonic.

Written in response to the popularity of the series, which aired nationally and internationally from 1958 to 1972, the collection of transcripts in YOUNG PEOPLE'S CONCERTS (edited by Jack Gottleib for Amadeus Press) offers fifteen of the best of those fifty-three concerts (which were released on DVD last year).

"All of Bernstein's programs are really lessons in listening. Informed, active listeners are what he wants us to be--and his guidance is inspiring," Thomas continues. "He wants us to understand that the rich tradition of music is easily available to us and that the spontaneous joy we take in street cries, folk songs, show tunes, and rock and roll is equally in the music that, for lack of a better word, is called 'classical.' Bernstein tackles all the 'scary sounding' terms like sonata and cadenza and makes them understandable and fun."

Bernstein (1918-90), the youngest person ever to have served as music director of the New York Philharmonic, was also a composer, pianist and orchestrator. His works include symphonies, ballets and chamber music, not to speak of the scores for West Side Story and Candide.

In his TV lectures, the handsome and charismatic Bernstein tackled such important and complex questions as What Does Music Mean?, What Makes Music American?, What is Classical Music?, Humor in Music, What is a Melody?, and more. In book form, his talks don't have live musicians to punctuate and demonstrate the key points, but he writes so clearly and vividly that the loss is minimal.

Here he is, for example, on the music of Haydn and Mozart: "The people of their time thought Bach was old-fashioned and boring, with all his serious fugues and things. They wanted something new--not so complicated--with pretty tunes and easy accompaniments, music that was elegant and refined and pleasant. And this was right in line with the times: a time of elegance and refinement, good manners, proper etiquette; a time of lace cuffs and silk suits, powdered wigs and jeweled fans, for the ladies and gentlemen of the court. So out came lovely, elegant music for them in which the main thing was the tune."

On TV Bernstein played a sample passage from a Mozart piano concerto--the book reproduces part of the score--and showed just how effective a little accompaniment under a "gorgeous melody" could be: "simple, but oh, how beautiful!"

Bernstein addressed his CBS talks to adolescents, but without ever over-simplifying or condescending. Consequently, his lectures can be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. Never before and never since has anyone communicated the joy of music with such flair and gusto.