Judge Eric Profancik proclaimed with fortissimo his allegro about this set.
"What is the music trying to say?"
Somewhere along the way, I had heard about Leonard Bernstein and the series of concerts he did for "young people," but I had never seen a single one until I watched this set. That makes sense as I was only two when he stopped doing them. As someone who appreciates classical music, I found this mammoth set an incredible, satisfying, and enlightening experience. For those who couldn't care less about or don't know the difference between tonal and atonal, then this set just might bore you to death.
Facts of the Case
Leonard Bernstein is a fabulously well-known conductor and composer. He is held in high regard in the musical community for his efforts to promote and expand the appreciation of the fine arts. The one thing he is probably best known for by the mainstream is his contributions to the Concerts for Young People. From 1958 through 1972, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic hosted a series of concerts aimed at teaching "young people" (children) not to fear classical music. This series covered a wide assortment of topics meant to help children and their parents understand the diversity of the genre. These concerts were well received during their time, and they were so popular and important that they eventually were aired on primetime television (on CBS).
Though Bernstein conducted a total of fifty-three of these concerts during his fourteen-year tenure, this nine-disc set contains "only" twenty-five of the concerts. They are:
• "What Does Music Mean?"
Though the Young People's Concerts were already an established series with the New York Philharmonic, it wasn't until Bernstein became Music Director that they reached new heights of popularity. Bernstein was very proud of these concerts, what he often called his "educational mission." He thought they were central to all his work, and he described them as "among my favorite, most highly prized activities of my life." Even when he took a break from the Philharmonic in the mid-'60s and even after he stepped down in 1969, Bernstein came back for these concerts. It is an amazing ensemble of work when you stop and think about it. Children's concerts are now a basic staple for most symphonies around the country. Almost all have some special series of children's concerts, but they are a pale imitation of what Bernstein did.
Take another look at the episode list above. Look at the variety and depth of topics included. It's an amazing—no, astonishing—curriculum of classical music. I certainly don't count myself as the most learned on the subject, yet I can attest that in my "Introduction to Classical Music" course in college, we did not cover such a rich diversity of topics. Gustav Mahler. Stravinsky. Fidelio. Sibelius. Modes. The topics are all the more impressive when you remember the target audience: children. Can you imagine such an endeavor with today's children? In the day of video games and computers, children don't take the time for the timeless pleasure of classical music. Further, and perhaps even more sadly, music and art curricula are waning in many schools today. With budgets stretched thin, schools often find the fine arts an easy target for reduction, and children miss being shown the exquisite beauty of classical music. While Bernstein could assume his audience already had a basic understanding of the concepts and subjects he was presenting, most of today's children would be completely ignorant.
What also truly surprises me is how popular these concerts came to be. In
the days before thousand-channel television sets, the Concerts for Young People
were eventually shown during primetime hours on CBS. These concerts originally
started out on Saturday mornings, but they eventually moved to the 7:30pm slot
for three years. Later, it ended its run on Sunday afternoons. Regardless, in
the time when there was a handful of channels to choose from, who would have
thought a major network would want to air this type of program? Would CBS or any
of the other big networks be so bold as to air such a program today? Probably
not. But, at least in one respect, we are lucky to have The Discovery Channel,
The Learning Channel, and Ovation to air this type of program.
One thing that I found surprisingly delightful about the entire experience was how clever and informed Bernstein was on his topics. Granted, he was one of the foremost conductors of his time working with one of the greatest symphonies of the world, so I should have known how smart he was. But it wasn't that. It was when I disagreed with him on a topic. That is probably best illustrated in the very first episode, "What Does Music Mean?" Bernstein's argument is simple: Music means nothing. It doesn't tell a story nor does it have any special meaning. Music, in and of itself, isn't about the message but about making you feel something. As Bernstein laid out this conclusion, I differed on the point because I follow the line of reasoning as detailed in Immortal Beloved: That music is an insight to the composer and what he is experiencing. Music does have a message that it wants to convey to the listener. Much to my surprise, I found Bernstein's argument extremely persuasive. Though he didn't change my mind, his argument was incredibly strong and sound. My surprise in all this was that I haven't experienced such a persuasive discussion in many years. It was refreshing to have such an intelligent "discussion."
The transfers on this set are not why you are going to buy it, so the lackluster presentation shouldn't be held too strongly against it. From the start, the full-frame transfer is very soft, a bit unfocused, and lacking in details. The majority of the episodes are presented in black and white, but we do get to color by the end. And as the fourteen years progress, the quality of the video improves, yet it's still nothing exceptional. It's good enough to clearly see Bernstein, the orchestra, and the entertained audience. On the audio side, you have two options—a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix or a Dolby 2.0 mono mix. For the most part, I found that the 2.0 mix was the better choice of the two, for the newly remixed 5.1 had a "fake" sound about it. The music didn't sound natural; it was obviously being forced to the surround channels, and it had that odd echo these mixes sometimes get. The 2.0 mix is better, but again it is a product of its time and isn't too strong. While you can understand Bernstein quite easily, the orchestra's performance is muddy, lacking the clarity and full range of the register. You lose the crispness of the trebles and the rich thrum of the bass. However, as with the video, the audio improves as the episodes progress, so that by the time you reach "Fidelio," the DD 5.1 mix is almost an acceptable alternative—except that a noticeable hiss becomes apparent. I expect a lot more on the audio transfers of music-related features, but I do have to acquiesce to the age of these performances. They're not very good, but they'll suffice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Only two very negligible negative items come to mind after viewing this set. The first is that, as with all things, some episodes are weaker than others, but that is not a huge problem. The second is that there are no bonus features on this disc. I think it would have been nice to experience some background materials on the concerts themselves. If you go to Bernstein's official site, you'll see papers, scripts, and scores for the shows, all of which could have been included in addition to a random commentary or two. (Luckily there is some useful information included in the liner notes.)
At the end of the long journey, I step back and think about all that I learned. And I did learn a great deal from this set. The world of classical music is impossibly large and complex, and there is so much to discover and so much to enjoy. Bernstein did a wonderful job and a tremendous service with his Young People's Concerts. Yet I have to stop and think about this set and my potential recommendation thereof. On the one hand, the information contained within is an educational bonanza about music; on the other, it is a nearly overpowering collection of educational material. As a result, how often will you want to view these episodes? Are they something you'll come back to again and again? I think the answer is that once you've viewed the set you'll be done with it. I can imagine a family loaning the disc to friends and other family members, but once their children have watched them, their usefulness has been fulfilled. Combine all that with the transfers, bare-bones treatment, and rather steep price and I have a hard time giving the buy recommendation. The long-term enjoyment doesn't seem to be there. But short-term, it's there without a doubt; thus, I'm going to say that your best bet is to rent these—if you can find them to rent. If you do have a large family with lots of relatives and a love of classical music, then feel free to purchase them. They are wonderful educational tools, and it certainly is a solid investment in your child's future.
Leonard Bernstein and his Young People's Concerts are hereby found not guilty on all charges. The court thanks them for their unwavering dedication to the arts.
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