In January 1958, just two weeks into his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein stepped onstage at Carnegie Hall to conduct the first of his 53 legendary "Young People's Concerts."
With households all across the nation watching live on CBS, he began a legacy that became the centerpiece of music education for generations of music lovers. Spanning 14 years, the concerts represent one of Bernstein's best achievements.
They became a special educational mission. Bernstein planned and wrote his own scripts to cover a range of musical topics, from explorations of the works of a variety of great composers to elements of musical theory, such as examinations of melody, intervals, and sonata form.
He even broached questions of aesthetics, asking "What does music mean?" and "What makes music funny?" He not only led the orchestra in musical examples, he plopped down at the piano to illustrate a point with brilliant technique and vivid musicality (not to mention a little off-pitch groaning along to the music). Charmingly casual, self-assured, and bouncing with energy, he asked questions of the audience - and they answered, often singing or clapping along to demonstrate a musical idea.
Robert Kapilow, a conductor, commentator, and composer who has developed his own series of music-appreciation concerts, attended those live Bernstein concerts. "He was a messianic missionary to communicate the art," Mr. Kapilow says. "He did everything in his power to get it across and reach the widest number of people. He had room for all kinds of music - classical, jazz, Broadway, pop - and because his universe was so big, ours got larger too."
In the process, a generation of young people were inspired to study music. It's safe to say that many of today's orchestra musicians of a certain age have fond memories of Bernstein's televised concerts.
Kultur's new specially remastered nine-DVD collector's edition of 25 of these landmark concerts should be mandatory viewing for all classroom music teachers. The concerts are a brilliant crash course in music appreciation. They are as relevant today (if not more so, given the sad state of music education) as they were then. For the musical connoisseur, the series offers special pleasures, tracing Bernstein's evolution as a conductor and showman, his presence on the podium growing more flamboyant as his hair turned grayer. By the end of the series in 1969, he was practically Hollywood. But that never changed Bernstein's abiding curiosity and palpable enthusiasm. While today's technologically sophisticated kids may scoff at the program's dated production values, they can't help being inspired by the man's passion for music. And that, perhaps, is his greatest legacy.
• Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic Specially-Remastered Nine DVD Collector's Edition, $149.95, Kultur, 1-800-718-1300, or www.kultur.com