Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Young People’s Concerts

We saw this multi-disc set for sale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown, but it was way out of our price range. Then we subscribed to Netflix…. What a find this was! I had never seen them, but Lee was a music student studying piano and had watched them when they were new. She had a big crush on Leonard Bernstein, and it’s easy to see why. The man was dynamic, charismatic, and good-looking. (Too bad about the gay business.) And whatever he didn’t know about music probably wasn’t worth knowing.

I researched this series a bit, and was surprised to learn that Bernstein didn’t originate it. In fact, they began in 1924 under Ernest Schelling, who did them in New York and on tour until 1958, when Lennie took over. Schelling was never the musical director of the New York Philharmonic. I’d like to be able to see some of these shows to see how much Bernstein changed them, but of course television was pretty primitive at the time, and none of the shows were televised. I would be surprised if Schelling’s efforts were as insightful and fascinating as Bernstein’s performances, because after all Lennie was one of a kind, but I could be wrong. I suspect they were more like “pops” concerts, and played mostly music that would be accessible to younger listeners.

Not Bernstein, though. He specialized in challenging stuff. This series contains 25 of the 53 shows he did from 1958 to 1972. The early ones are quite static, visually. Take a look at the cameras of the era, big as a refrigerator and about as mobile, and you’ll see why. But the sound quality is amazingly good. I shouldn’t be surprised, as I have a series of re-issues of LPs from the ‘50s now available on CD: “Mercury Living Presence” and “RCA Victor Living Stereo,” and they are as good as any 99-track digital stuff being recorded today. The very idea of stereophonic sound was new and exciting back then, but how do you mike 110 people with 2, or 4 tracks, tops? Today, you just give everybody a mike, but back then they had to be creative about it, and they found ways to be sure you heard every nuance from every player.

Looking around, I found the following titles that are not on this collection:

Anatomy of a Symphony Orchestra
Bach Transmogrified
Charles Ives: American Pioneer
Farewell to Nationalism
Forever Beethoven!
Holst: “The Planets”
Liszt and the Devil
Modern Music from All Over
Overtures and Preludes
The Genius of Paul Hindemith
The Road to Paris
The Second Hurricane
Thus Spake Richard Strauss
A Copland Celebration
Fantastic Variations (Don Quixote)
Unusual Instruments of Past, Present and Future
Aaron Copland Birthday Party

That leaves 11 concerts that I know nothing about, not even the title. Anybody out there know anything about these?

1. What Does Music Mean? Pretty basic question. Bernstein’s answer: It means nothing. He makes a clear distinction between words and music. Music without words can have no intrinsic “meaning.” It can and does evoke emotions, feelings, impressions, but they will be different for every listener.
2. What is American Music? I didn’t completely agree with Bernstein about this one … but I suspect that he himself might have changed his opinions about several of these shows as the years went by. At one point in one show he says something that seems to imply that percussion alone doesn’t qualify as music, and I’m sure the deaf percussion genius Evelyn Glennie would argue about that. But this episode was worth it just for the pleasure of seeing Aaron Copland conduct the selection, the last movement of one of his symphonies.
3. What is Orchestration? A very amusing episode, as well as being instructive. How to bring out the colors and work variations on themes.

4. What Makes Music Symphonic? Here’s a good place to talk about Bernstein’s passion for the music. I think of myself as relatively versed in orchestral music, but I quickly realized I’ve only scratched the surface. Lennie feels this stuff on a level I can only imagine. He usually conducts without a baton, as if he is actually pulling the sounds out of the air. He smiles, he grimaces, he almost dances in his fervor to create the sounds he wants. What a pleasure to see him from the orchestra’s point of view, instead of from the back as audiences do.
5. What is Classical Music? According to Lennie, “classical” music means, in general, that it was written between 1700 and 1800. Before that it was baroque, and after that it was romantic. Interesting thesis. And it does seem silly to call the work of Ravel, Copland, Ives, Shostakovich, Philip Glass, or other composers of the 20th Century “classical” music simply because it was written for orchestra. Still, I don’t think he completely answered the question to my satisfaction.
6. Humor in Music. Some of the jokes are pretty esoteric, and I might not have heard them if Lennie hadn’t pointed them out beforehand.

7. What is a Concerto? Quite an engaging episode, as LB came out on an almost empty stage … well, empty compared to the full musical battalion of a philharmonic orchestra. There was just a small ensemble, and they played, I believe, Mozart or Handel. Then more musicians came in from the wings, then more and more as LB traced the expansion of the orchestra and the possibilities for it.
8. Who is Gustav Mahler? A badly conflicted man, according to LB, who was the foremost champion and interpreter of Mahler during his career. Mahler straddled the transition from Romantic music to modern music, and LB shows us how. Mahler sometimes used ensembles up to 1000 people, frequently used singers, but never wrote an opera. We get some wonderful stuff from Das lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) with soprano singers. One of them seems to be a black woman, which had to be at least a bit remarkable for that day and age. In fact, women on the stage at all was a departure, something I noticed from Episode One. The Phil back then was composed entirely of middle-aged to almost elderly men, most of them balding. The only regular exception was a harpist (a traditional “women’s” instrument), and we were pretty sure we spotted a woman flautist during one episode. I will be interested to see just when woman start to be regular members.
9. Folk Music in the Concert Hall. Not Peter Paul & Mary folk music. Anyway, at this time that sort of folk music was just getting started pretty far down Broadway from Carnegie Hall. This was about folk music themes in orchestral music, and of course there is a lot of that. The chief delight was the appearance of Marni Nixon, the soprano who made it seem like Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn could actually sing. She was never given screen credit for her performances, which were at least as important as the acting itself. Not that it was ever a secret, but she tended to be “that woman behind the curtain,” like Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, you seldom saw her. She’s 75 now and lately has been getting more of the recognition she was always due.

10. What is Impressionism? Oddly enough, just the day before we went to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and were blown away by the Impressionist painters. They had a fabulous collection with Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne, and a huge number of paintings and sculpture by Degas. (Also a couple fine Van Gogh’s and one spectacular Picasso.) Neither of us had ever thought about Impressionist music, but Lennie convinced us. The two main composers were Ravel and Debussy. We got to hear all of La Mer, with descriptions by Bernstein between movements.
11. Happy Birthday, Igor Stravinsky. It’s Igor’s 80th, and he lived almost a decade beyond this 1962 show. LB calls Stravinsky “The most important composer working today.” I might suggest Copland, but have no real argument with that proposition. There is no question that Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) was a seminal moment in music in 1913, when it caused a riot. (Who says the mosh pit is an aberration?) I’d loved to have heard that, but LB chose Petrushka instead, and that was fine with me, as I’m not as familiar with it. LB took the first movement apart and put it back together, and was his usual charming self explaining it all.
12. What is a Melody? Two notes in relation to each other, apparently. Then there is a theme, and a motive, and much much more. Repetition is the key to a melody’s popularity. Repetition is the key to a melody’s popularity. Repetition is the key to a melody’s popularity. Repetition is the key to a melody’s popularity. But you can overdo it, so after two repetitions you need to inject a variation.

This is apparently the second YPC after the Phil’s move from Carnegie Hall to Avery Fisher in Lincoln Center. The first one isn’t on this set of DVDs and I wish it was, as it seems it was about the “New science of acoustics.” I know Carnegie has the history, but the new hall was lots bigger, both stage and audience, and I know the musicians appreciated the move. From the first day, the place just sounded better … though I recall some dissent at the time from people who liked the muddier sound of Carnegie, just as some incredible dopes hate the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, on the grounds that it ought to be brown and dusky because … because … well, because it was that way for a long, long time! Who cares what Michelangelo actually intended? Idiots!

13. The Latin American Spirit. I expected a bit of “España,” maybe a few bars of “Malagueña.” I should have known better. LB begins with a difficult piece by a composer I’d never heard of, and the easiest thing on the program was something by Villa-Lobos. Then there was Danzon Cubano by Copland (a YPC would hardly be complete without a piece by Copland). The highlight was an Israeli soprano doing Sensemayá by Revueltas, which involved humming the second movement. I’d never heard humming in a classical concert, and by a soprano … it was weirdly wonderful. The show ended with four dances from West Side Story, the first time LB has played his own music in these concerts. I reflected on just how radical this stuff was for Broadway in 1957, how radical it still was in Avery Fisher Hall in 1963. This was not No, No, Nanette!, or My Fair Lady. This was raw, powerful, difficult music.
14. Jazz in the Concert Hall. Once again, LB avoids the easy stuff by Gershwin and plunges right into a brief riff by a jazz quintet onstage with the Phil. Three of the five jazzmen were black, the first black faces we’ve seen in this series, either onstage or in the audience. (A soprano in an earlier episode was probably negro, as the word was back then, but she was light-skinned and in the grainy B&W television it was hard to tell.) All five of these guys could play a cool solo but it was obvious they had formidable classical chops, too, as they later played to scores that I’m sure would have had me cross-eyed. Then there was Journey Into Jazz, a Peter and the Wolf knockoff, directed by the composer, Gunther Schuller, with words by Nat Hentoff narrated by Bernstein, about a boy who learned how to play jazz on his trumpet. And the boy was played by … Don Ellis! If you don’t know him, he became very influential in avant-garde jazz shortly after this 1963 concert, with a 20-piece orchestra that specialized in time signatures much odder than any the Brubeck Quartet used in the seminal Time Out album. I have his Monterey Jazz Festival recording on vinyl somewhere. They played in 5/4, in 7 (“Beat Me Daddy, 7 To the Bar”), 11, 13, in 27/16, and 19/4. (Something called “33 222 1 222.” Try counting that one, and then improvising a solo!) Then it was right into (surprise!) Copland’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, played by (surprise!) Aaron Copland himself. This guy is a puzzle to me. He looks like he’d be right at home behind the counter of a deli, slicing salami, but he sits at the piano and strikes these stark, amazing dissonances and sprung syncopated rhythms, never going where you expect him to go but enchanting you all the way. He doesn’t look like a leading edge composer; he doesn’t look like a composer at all. (Beethoven, now there’s a guy who looked the part, with that massive frown and beetling brow.) The program concluded with one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever sat through. It was Improvisations for Orchestra and Jazz Soloists, by Larry Austin. I’d loved to have had a peek at the score. Much of it was written down, but there were improvs by Ellis, the jazz bassist and drummer, and even by members of the Phil. It grew so chaotic it was hard to tell what was intended and what was ad libbed. LB came close to pulling every muscle in his body directing it, he was so ebullient and so clearly enjoying himself. Don Ellis got sounds out of his 4-valve quarter-tone trumpet that I’ve never heard tortured out of a brass instrument. Lee ended up covering her ears. I can honestly say I … not so much enjoyed it as was fascinated by it. I don’t think I’d want to hear it again, though.
This was the most challenging YPC yet, by far. Very much not the Boston Pops.
15. What is Sonata Form? This is the most technical episode we’ve seen, and probably the least successful. Perhaps this lecture on the nuts and bolts of the sonata would be of interest to serious music students, but for someone like me I have to admit that a lot of it went right over my head. Hey, I’m a brass player, we don’t play chords, we play lines. Keys, tonics, structure, were always a mystery to me (which may be why I was a perpetual second chair). I just counted the sharps and flats in the key signature and that was enough for me. Sole exception: French horns used to come in two major varieties, the F and the Eb. The Eb is seldom used anymore, but for a time it was common in marching bands, so a lot of the music we horn pickers were handed was in Eb, which meant we had to transpose two half-steps down. This was a bitch. We hated it. And see how quickly you got bored with this technical stuff about horns? That’s sort of how I felt when LB was expounding on the scales, the two (or three, or maybe, sometimes, four) parts of the sonata form, and suchlike.
But as part of his tracing of the sonata form from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to an aria from Carmen, LB paused to sing the first verses of “And I Love Her,” by Lennon and McCartney. He did it in a fruity, nasal croon, and the kids in the audience loved it. He was, of course, making fun of the music, but hey, this was 1964, The Beatles were just another pop-chart ditty group, albeit a hugely successful one. There wasn’t much there to appreciate other than their ability to write a song you could hum. Who knew that Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper lay in the near future?

16. A Tribute to Sibelius. I’ve loved this Sibelius dude since the Nederland High School Concert Band (second chair French horn: John Varley) played Finlandia in 1964 or so. A really fine horn part! Beyond that, I knew a few of his pieces, but not the ones LB played. LB emphasized the nationality of his music as a Finn, a people who were struggling for identity around that time, seeking to throw off the political and cultural domination by the Russians and the Swedes. I looked him up and discovered that for the last 30 years of his life, Sibelius wrote practically nothing.
The center of the show was a performance of the Violin Concerto in D Minor, performed by 20-year-old Sergiu Luca. It was stunning, especially the long, very difficult cadenza. (“‘Cadenza.’ That’s one of those hard words,” Lennie would say. “But it’s really very simple. It’s when the orchestra stops playing, the conductor stops conducting, and the soloist performs alone, sometimes improvising on themes provided by the composer. See how easy that was?”)
The program began with a new introduction to the new concert hall. And … oops! I was wrong up there in my review of Disc Four when I said the Philharmonic Hall (eventually to be renamed the Avery Fisher) was an auditory delight. In fact, thinking back, I remember the controversy a little better. I believe the Phil thought the new venue was better than Carnegie Hall, but it had problems from the start. They tore out the interior and reengineered the whole place. I remember they put big sandbags in every seat to account for the warm bodies that would be there for a concert. Some say the place still ain’t what it ought to be … I thought about changing my earlier review, but what the heck. I’ll admit to a mistake and correct it here.
17. Musical Atoms: A Study in Intervals. I figured a “musical atom” would be a note, but no, LB convinced me it’s more logical to think of notes as protons and electrons, and intervals as atoms. He took us through the more basic ones, major and minor, diminished, ascending and descending. A lot of nuts and bolts. Then part of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, and an extremely difficult piece by Ralph (say “Rafe”) Vaughn-Williams.
18. The Sound of an Orchestra. LB was at his most mischievous here. He started right off with the “Largo” movement of Haydn’s 88th Symphony. It was lush, expressive, and quite beautiful. Then he asked the audience to agree with him that it was wonderful, and they did, and he said, “No, it was awful!” The reason, he revealed was that the orchestra had deliberately overplayed every element that Haydn had written. If he indicated piano, they played pianissimo. A sforzando was stomped on rather than merely attacked. The vibratos were hugely overplayed. His point was that Haydn was an 18th Century composer, that his orchestra would never have been as large as the NY Phil (at which point a quarter of the players got up and left), and that you approached Haydn’s music differently than you would Beethoven, or Stravinsky. Emotion was okay, in fact it is always okay; romanticism was not on the page, however. He showed examples, contrasting Berlioz and Brahms, the frog and the kraut.
For a while now there has been a movement to go even farther than mere period interpretation. Much period music is now played on period instruments, or new ones crafted to be like old ones. The sound is very different, many modern instruments having been refined over centuries to be fuller, mellower, brassier … you name it. A 17th century pianoforte, for instance, doesn’t sound much like a Steinway concert grand.
The program ended with the “Hoedown” from Copland’s Rodeo. In my book, you can’t go wrong with Copland.

19. A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich. Dmitri Shostakovich (hereafter, DS) had a hard life, and a bit of luck. He wrote his Seventh, “Leningrad” Symphony during the Nazi siege of that city, as everyone starved. But he got out. Twice he was denounced, forced to publicly repent from the sin of “formalism,” whatever that is. His life was literally on the line, and all because of music which had no words, and thus no demonstrable political content. He was forced to join the Communist Party to rehabilitate himself. He contracted polio and had to stop playing the piano, he had several heart attacks, and several falls in which both his legs were broken. And yet he survived until 1975.
He was 60 when Lenny and the Phil threw him this birthday party in absentia. The program was mostly devoted to his Ninth Symphony, which LB described as a vast musical joke (see DISC TWO). It is “an ironic Haydnesque parody,” according to whoever wrote the DS article in Wikipedia, so LB isn’t alone in his assessment. But lurking within the traditional structure were very modern elements. He also claimed that the entire idea of writing such a small symphony as your ninth turn at the plate was a joke in itself, because ever since Beethoven composers who have lived long enough to write a ninth have tried to make it as vast as his was. I don’t know if I buy that completely, but what the hey?
But reading about DS’s political troubles and thinking of Beethoven led me to search out one of the more fatuous statements of the 20th Century, made by one Susan McClary, a musicologist and “feminist” currently still poisoning young minds at UCLA. In 1987 she wrote this about Beethoven’s Ninth:

“The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.”

Don’t believe me? Find it hard to credit that anyone could be that stupid? Check it out. I’m not even going to try to find adjectives to describe the depths of awe this statement evokes in me. Ms. McClary interprets various musics as “imperialistic” and “hegemonic.” So with Stalin it’s formalism, and with her it’s “patriarchalism.” I have the feeling they’d get along.
The Ninth! The glorious, glorious Ninth! How dare she? What may be the single most joyous, life-affirming, transcendent piece of music ever set down on paper (and by a man who was stone deaf at the time!), and she compares it to rape? I think she watched A Clockwork Orange too many times. Sweetheart, just because Stanley Kubrick had Alex jacking off to it, and Alex was not a nice guy—was, in fact a rapist—doesn’t mean it’s rape music. There was irony there, babe, but I doubt you know what that means, any more than Stalin did. Clearly, this woman needs to have her head examined. I mean that literally; she is obviously suffering from some bad psychological problems. As for the idiots who take her seriously (and there are some such benighted souls) … I don’t know what to do about them. Was it Henry Ford who said no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public? I think it can also be said about the credulity of the gnomes of academia.
20. What is a Mode? Short answer: scales played on just the white keys. Not major or minor scales, but older forms which you may not realize you are hearing, but can easily learn to identify. LB was very good in explaining this exotica, because he startled us all by pointing out that the majority of “popular” music is modal music. He gave several examples, most notably “Norwegian Wood”:

“I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.”

Sing those italicized words—I’ll bet you know the tune—and you are hearing the … I’m sorry, I forgot if it’s the Dorian or the Lydian mode. In particular, “once” is not a note from a major or minor scale. LB explained how whole tones and half tones entered into the definitions, and I understood it at the time, but I don’t remember it now … and who cares, as there won’t be a test at the end of the concert. It was very interesting to hear it all. What I don’t understand is what we might call the Hegemony of the Major and Minor Scales, if we used the terminology of Susan McClary, above. For more than 200 years, apparently, “serious” composers favored these scales above all others, while popular music harkened back to the older, more primitive scales used, for instance, by monks in plainchants. (The men of the Phil sang a brief passage. Sweet stuff.)
A funny thing … when I was writing Wizard I was casting around for some interesting, unusual terms to describe some rather complex alien sex. I went back to the Greeks, where I’d stolen the names of the various regions of Gaea, and used the names of the various modes of Greek music, something I knew nothing about. But at least I knew the words LB was using, which are, for the record:

Aeolian and Locrian
Dorian and Hypodorian
Phrygian and Hypophrygian
Lydian, Hypolydian and Mixolydian

Now you know as much as I do.
But I must return to the beginning, where our eyes were startled by
Now, was that sentence a little hard to read? Did it jar your senses a little? Well, it did mine, too. In fact, for the first fifteen minutes or so I had a hard time listening to the music as I rediscovered the warm wood colors of the strings, and the acoustic baffles behind the orchestra. But by the time we were halfway through it was as if it had never been in black and white at all.
There was another bit of color, too, in the person of a negro (this was 1967) player. It was hard to glimpse him, buried as he was in the cold hinterlands of the back rows of the third violins, but he was there.
And yet a third change: The first regular female member of the Phil. Even more startling, she was a double bass player. You don’t see that every day. Here’s hoping that before the series ends we see others who are not balding white males.
21. A Toast to Vienna in 3/4 Time. Both the New York and Vienna Philharmonics were celebrating their 125th anniversaries, both having been founded in 1842. To commemorate the occasion, they were exchanging tributes, and this was the Valentine to the Vienna. Where else would you start but with a Strauss (Johann) waltz? It was a lovely one, but I can’t recall the name.
Then we moved through other composers associated (though not necessarily in my mind, until I looked into their careers a bit) with Vienna, including Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Mahler. And we ended on some very sweet waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier, again by Strauss (Richard).
NOTE: During some of the music, the lead trumpet player used a mute I’d never seen before. It looked like a purple cloth bag. Now, there are many kinds of trumpet mutes, you can even use a plumber’s plunger as a mute, but this was a new one to me. Had it not been in color I don’t know if we’d have ever figured it out. Could that be … ? Yes, it was! It was a Crown Royal bag! I verified this after considerable googling. Trumpeters have used the purple bags that Canadian whiskey bottles come in as mutes for some time, apparently. You learn something new every day. And let that be your new fact for the day!

22. Quiz-Concert: How Musical Are You? The answer for me and Lee: Pretty darn musical! And a big reason was that we’d seen 21 of these concerts recently, and at least a little of it stuck with us. It didn’t hurt that Bernstein chose quiz topics and questions that related back to previous shows, either …
We began with a performance of a well-known piece. We were asked to identify the composer, time period, the type of music, the form, and the name of the piece itself. We both pegged it as the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Got the right era, and the type, but Lee stumbled on the form. I got it, partly by cheating and recalling that the only form LB had covered in detail was sonata form. Bingo! 100%!
After that we did about equally well, though we didn’t keep score. There were a lot of trick questions, some obvious, most of them pretty funny. The audience loved it all.
Then another piece of music with the same questions. I thought Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev. Russian, anyway, and late 19th or early 20th. Bingo again! It was Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D, the “Classical,” 1917, featured in the earlier program “Musical Jokes.”
23. Berlioz Takes a Trip. Devoted to Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which Bernstein contends is the first “psychedelic” music. Considering that it was written in 1830, it is really something. But it was based on Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, so there’s a lot of merit in the theory. It is quite fantastic, and LB dissected it and then put it back together.
24. Two Ballet Birds. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Stravinski’s Firebird, compared and contrasted. The first contains a lot of what LB called “abstract” music, that is, set pieces that have nothing to do with the story of the ballet but are simply put in as chances for the big shots in the company to show their chops, and as such can be put in just about any place in the performance. As I recall, The Nutcracker is much the same way, with most of the second act devoted to various dances as the little girl watches. Firebird, however, is all plot, you can’t just pick and choose which numbers you perform as the story will fall apart without the whole thing.

25. Fidelio: A Celebration of Life. Beethoven’s only opera, and both a towering success and a disappointment, according to LB and most other critics, though a few would leave out the “towering” part, or even the “success.”
The opera tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named “Fidelio,” rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison. Not exactly The Magic Flute. The music is magnificent, what we hear of it, sung by four young students from Julliard, but according to Lennie the work is marred by an irrelevant subplot which is insufficiently developed and then more or less abandoned. This isn’t something we need to worry about in a one-hour overview like this.
I couldn’t let this one go without saying a work about this ancient business of a grown woman passing herself off as a boy. It’s amusing, and traditional (I don’t know if the Greeks invented it, but I wouldn’t be surprised), and so, so dumb. Was anyone ever fooled for more than ten seconds? But writers love it, from The Merchant of Venice to Sullivan’s Travels and Sylvia Scarlett to Shakespeare in Love (which lampoons the whole conceit, wonderfully!), they can’t resist. I’ve got no point here, just had to mention it.
One thing … our hero, Señor Florestan? I can’t hear his name without giggling. I always remember that in the ’50s, when Crest toothpaste added stannous fluoride to their product, they called it “fluoristan.” So would attending this opera regularly lead to cleaner, brighter teeth and less tooth decay?
Now, Kultur DVD’s or the Bernstein estate or CBS, whoever controls the rights … when do we get to see the other 28 concerts? We’re waiting ….