Leonard Bernstein has a secure place in history as a marvelously successful conductor and composer, the first conductor from the U.S. to achieve worldwide renown. In a career that was filled with other honors and achievements, Bernstein's Young People's Concerts stand out as one of his most notable achievements. Loving music as he did, he wanted to share its beauty with the younger generation. And so Bernstein conceived of the Young People's Concerts, and with the New York Philharmonic symphony orchestra to work with, he created a program that captivated audiences and won awards, from its first broadcast in 1958 to its last in 1972. The series – with each episode created and written by Bernstein himself – came to a total of 53 episodes, 25 of which appear on this DVD set. It was truly a labor of love, and we can see that very clearly in the boundless energy and enthusiasm that Bernstein shows in each and every program.
The Young People's Concerts are an inventive mix of commentary and musical performances, designed to teach about music while also fostering enthusiasm and love for music as well. In each one, Bernstein addresses a particular topic, from "What is American Music?" to ""What is a Melody?", using various pieces of music to illustrate his explanations. Sometimes, this example is just a phrase or two, perhaps played by Bernstein himself on the piano; other times, we hear the entire piece in full.
Ironically, more than forty years after the Young People's Concerts first aired, I suspect that adults will appreciate the program far more than children, who will probably have some difficulty overcoming the "old" look of the episodes. The perfect audience for this program is now that of young adults and adults who have an interest in music but not much knowledge about it. For me, the program was ideal: I enjoy listening to classical music, but apart from knowing the names and best-known work of a few famous composers, I was pretty much a blank slate when it came to understanding music. That's not to say that viewers who are already somewhat informed about music won't find anything of interest: quite the opposite, in fact. My husband was a useful test subject in this regard, as he grew up listening to classical music and in general had a much more solid musical education than I did; he enjoyed the Young People's Concerts as much as I did. Even if some of the topics aren't new to you, Bernstein's approach is sure to bring out some interesting nuances in the material or in the compositions that he has chosen to illustrate his topic.
To say that these programs are "informative" is to put it mildly. Watching the Young People's Concerts was like being in a room and suddenly seeing doors opening up all over the place, doors I hadn't even know existed. It's hard to pick examples, because every single episode opens up new avenues for understanding and appreciating music, from suddenly recognizing the jazz influences in "Rhapsody in Blue" in "What is American Music?", to wrapping my brain around the fascinating concepts presented in "What is a Mode?", to appreciating the way that a composer makes decisions about what instruments to use in "What is Orchestration?" And that's before we even consider the episodes that focus on understanding and appreciating specific composers, such as Gustav Mahler, Sibelius, or Shostakovich. After every one, I'd walk away amazed by the new insights I had into music.
It's no big surprise that I've been listening to a lot more classical music lately... including the full versions of pieces that Bernstein used in one of the episodes.
What makes the program shine, of course, is Leonard Bernstein himself. In each hour-long episode, he deftly leads the audience through a developing understanding of the topic at hand, starting with the basics and building up to a more complex view. He always manages to explain even the most difficult concepts in a way that's clear and understandable, while at the same time never patronizing the audience in the least. The musical pieces woven into each episode are essential, serving as far more than just examples, because Bernstein carefully explains what we should be listening for. Many times, he'll work through a piece of music bit by bit, showing how it works, and then finish up with the orchestra playing all the way through it without commentary, so that we can experience it with our new-found understanding. Many of the musical examples are given by the orchestra, but often Bernstein simply sits down at the piano and gives us a quick example, by playing or singing, of what he's talking about.
In this program, Leonard Bernstein is to music what Carl Sagan is to science in Cosmos: he's the perfect guide to a fascinating new world, because he is himself part of that world. Bernstein talks about music with a passion that couldn't possibly be expressed by a different narrator, even a good one. Especially since Bernstein has a sense of humor about the subject, the programs are never dry in the least. It's always very evident that Bernstein is enjoying himself immensely, and wants you, in the audience, to share in his enjoyment; it's impossible not to have his enthusiasm rub off on you.
If you enjoy listening to music – it doesn't even have to be classical music in particular – then Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts will be a real treat. So you can get an idea of what's in store for you in this massive set, here's a list of the episodes:
What Does Music Mean?
Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts is a massive nine-disc set, which Kultur has packaged very attractively in a fairly compact format. Each DVD has its own hard plastic page, with all nine bound together in "book" format with a sturdy cardboard cover. An 18-page episode guide is included as well.
The 25 episodes presented here were aired over a number of years, between 1958 and 1970, so it should come as no surprise that the image quality is neither perfect nor consistent. The episodes start out in black-and-white and switch to color partway through the set (Bernstein even comments, in the first episode that's broadcast in color, that he's wearing a "modish" colored tie for the occasion.)
Overall, the episodes are consistently clean and free of noise. Some episodes show more wear and tear than the others in terms of scratches in the print; the earlier episodes, not surprisingly, are more worn than later ones. In the first couple of episodes, viewers may note an odd fishbowl effect when the camera is moving, but this is an artifact of the way it was filmed, not a problem with the transfer (and soon enough, better cameras were used and this effect disappears). The image is consistently soft and blurred, as we might expect from the age and nature of the source material. Contrast is handled satisfactorily in the black-and-white episodes, and while colors are rather muted in the later episodes, they're acceptable as well. All the episodes appear in their original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
Two audio options are presented: a Dolby 2.0 track, and an obviously remastered Dolby 5.1 track. In terms of sound quality, there's no difference; however, the 5.1 track has spread the sound out among all the channels to more closely approximate the feeling of being in the concert hall. I enjoyed the more immersive effect of the 5.1 track, and I'd recommend that as the soundtrack to listen to if possible.
The overall sound quality is acceptable. In the earlier episodes, there is noticeable crackling and hissing to be heard in the background; this diminishes to a more acceptable level as the series proceeds. Fortunately, the music itself always sounds completely natural and is never distorted at all. Likewise, Leonard Bernstein's voice is always clear and completely easy to understand.
The one special feature is an 18-page "Special Collector's Edition Episode Guide." This very useful booklet gives a detailed description of each episode, including a brief summary of Bernstein's program and a list of all the different musical pieces played during that episode. It's a helpful reference.
If you enjoy music and you're interested in learning more about it, then Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts is meant for you. This fantastic nine-disc set compiles 25 of the educational programs created by the famous conductor/composer, with Bernstein's fascinating explanations about how music works illustrated by performances from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The only reason it gets less than a perfect score for the program content is that it's not as accessible to modern children as when it was produced; on the other hand, it's perhaps even more appealing for adults at this point. This outstanding DVD set easily gets a "highly recommended."