LENOX, MASS. — LENNY would have loved all the hoopla. Beginning Aug. 25, which would have been Leonard Bernstein's 75th birthday, one of the 20th century's most beloved musicians is being posthumously feted with concerts and celebrations around the world. In fact, this mammoth birthday party has been going on for most of the summer and continues on into the fall, with a spate of festivals; recording, video, and publication releases; a couple of street renamings; and a stamp (in Grenada). Though Bernstein died more than
2-1/2 years ago, the unprecedented media blitz is perhaps greater now than had he still been alive.
One of the most exciting, and potentially influential, events to come out of this flurry of activity is the release on VHS cassette of 25 of Bernstein's landmark Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. From 1958 to 1972, CBS broadcast 53 one-hour programs covering such topics as "What is Orchestral Music?" and "Who is Gustav Mahler?" These programs were the most appealing and informative music lessons ever presented to the American public, and they cast Bernstein as one of the most charis matic and knowledgeable musical evangelists of all time.
Rather than sanctifying "great music" in the Young People's Concerts, Bernstein took it apart, analyzing its basic building blocks, illuminating its intricacies. He did so with deftness and a persistent reference to popular culture, championing contemporary and American music within his diverse and eclectic curriculum.
In "What is Classical Music?" there was the marvelous delight of hearing Bernstein play and sing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" in imitation of Louis Armstrong to illustrate the flexibility of jazz and popular stylings in contrast to the exactness of classical music. In other programs he enthusiastically sang Elvis Presley and The Beatles, using "And I Love Her" to illustrate sonata form.
He was unpatronizing, assuming a degree of sophistication on the part of his young audiences and disarming them with his confidence in their knowledge. "You've all heard the prelude to [Wagner's] great opera 'Tristan and Isolde,' I'm sure," he would remark casually, immediately drawing them into his circle.
Bernstein chose the topics and scripted the programs himself. During the show's first 10 years, it garnered five Emmy awards. At the peak of its popularity, the show was carried in nine European countries as well as in Argentina, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Philippines.
The programs, which were produced and directed by Roger Englander, were recorded live at Carnegie or Avery Fisher Halls with no post-production editing (except minimal editing when the format switched from kinescope to videotape). By today's high-tech standards, they are rough.
The sound quality is flattened, cameras often shift focus or angles abruptly. The written script and music are accompanied by every grunt, groan, and hum picked up by Bernstein's microphone. (There is one humorous moment at the opening of "What Does Music Mean?" as we hear Bernstein backstage asking, "Where is the spray? Hand me that spray. Oh, there's no time?" And then the maestro appears, sweeping his hair off his forehead and launching into a fascinating discourse and a piano demonstration that range s from Chopin to Beethoven to boogie-woogie.)
The release of the Young People's Concerts for home viewing has had a long and arduous history. Not only did the old kinescopes and videotapes need to be restored, there were also all sorts of legal agreements to be negotiated with CBS, the New York Philharmonic, the soloists and players who appeared on the programs, music copyright holders (composers, lyricists) and others, creating a mammoth legal quagmire for almost two decades.
The tapes are available to individuals and educational and performing-arts institutions through the Leonard Bernstein Society. Later in the fall, the tapes will be offered through a subscription plan with the Smithsonian Institution Press's video division. At this point, there are no plans to distribute the tapes to stores.
Amid all the fanfare and general rejoicing, there is cause for concern and regret. The commercial TV networks have deemed the programs too limited in appeal for general broadcast, and the programs are too expensive for PBS without corporate sponsorship. Cable may be an alternative somewhere in the future.
Bernstein's drive to educate and inspire continues on in other formats, however, such as his numerous publications and the philanthropic Bernstein Education through the Arts Fund. BETA supports numerous educational projects, including the new Leonard Bernstein Center for Education Through the Arts in Nashville, Tenn. And Bernstein's 50-year relationship with Tanglewood, where he "lost his heart to music as a conducting student" and graduated to administrator, conductor, and teacher, spawned programs such
as the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, and the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan.
For Bernstein, teaching was a lifelong mission. Shortly before his death, he said in the opening ceremony of the 1990 Pacific Music Festival, "My decision [is] to spend most of the remaining energy and time the Lord grants me with education, sharing as much as I can with younger people ... whatever I know not only about music but also art, and about being oneself, finding one's self, 'knowing who you are,' and doing the best possible job. If I can communicate some of this to as many young people as possi ble in the years that remain to me, I will be a very happy man."
Even now, Bernstein's educational legacy is thriving. Somewhere, Lenny must be smiling.
* For more information, contact the Leonard Bernstein Society in New York, 800-382-6622.