Leonard Bernstein and His Young People’s Concerts

Leonard Bernstein and His Young People’s Concerts
By Alicia Kopfstein-Penk
Rowman and Littlefield; 230 pages
A review by R. C. Speck

From the 1950s to 1990, the year in which he died, Leonard Bernstein was the face of American Classical music. He was, of course, a famous composer, a passionate conductor, a writer, and a world celebrity. In her book Leonard Bernstein and his Young People’s Concerts, author Alicia Kopfstein-Penk reminds us however that Bernstein’s greatest gift to music may have been his Young People’s Concerts.

Airing from 1958 to 1972, these television concerts brought cutting-edge music pedagogy into the homes of millions. Kopfstein-Penk describes Bernstein’s greatest challenge as bridging the gap between music appreciation and technical discussions. Bernstein overcame this challenge through spontaneity, humor, and an interactive approach through which children were quizzed and otherwise included in the program both as players and audience members. Bernstein had a knack for selecting topics that kids would find interesting. He also made the most of the television medium, creatively using visual aids to bring the music closer to children.

One theme running through Kopfstein-Penk’s work is Bernstein’s ability to transcend what she refers to as “brows,” as in “highbrow,” “lowbrow,” and “middlebrow.” Bernstein was never shy about introducing ideas of popular music into his programs. In fact, his famous “What is a Mode?” concert was inspired by his daughter’s struggle to understand a Beatles harmony. He was also culturally savvy and enjoyed comparing, say, a triumphant passage in a highbrow piece with things like a football game, political event, or television program.

Kopfstein-Penk shows how Bernstein was a product of his era. The Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and feminism all found their way into his programs. His “Latin American Spirit” concert occurred in March 1963, only months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Also in 1963 he performed the work of the female composer Shulamit Ran. His sympathetic treatment of Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich in 1966 spoke volumes. His focus on Beethoven’s Fidelio and its “celebration of human rights, of freedom to speak out, to dissent” came shortly after the My Lai Massacre. He also broke ground by showcasing young African-American performers such as André Watts and Veronica Tyler.

Kopfstein-Penk dedicates an entire chapter to Bernstein’s efforts to promote American music. This basically meant the Young People’s Concerts would feature a lot of Copland, Gershwin, and jazz. Being a postmodernist herself, Kopfstein-Penk explores Bernstein’s dismissal of American avant-garde and of atonal music in general.

If one word can describe Kopfstein-Penk’s work, it is “complete.” The book is as much a history as it is a biographical volume on the pedagogical work of Leonard Bernstein. She provides hundreds of footnotes and eight appendices and leaves no stone unturned to tell the story of the Young People’s Concerts.

This book review appeared in the summer 2015 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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