Vol. 2 of Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”

Bernstein-Vol2

YOUNG PEOPLE’S CONCERTS, Vol. 2 / 1. What is Sonata Form? excerpts by MOZART, LENNON/McCARTNEY, BIZET, PROKOFIEV w/Veronica Tyler, sop. 2. A Tribute to Sibelius. excerpts by SIBELIUS w/Sergiu Luca, vln. 3. Musical Atoms: A Study of Intervals. excerpts by WAGNER, J. STRAUSS, LENNON/McCARTNEY, BRAHMS, VAUGHAN WILLIAMS. 4. The Sound of an Orchestra. excerpts by HAYDN, BEETHOVEN, BRAHMS, DEBUSSY, STRAVINSKY, GERSHWIN, COPLAND, BACH. 5. A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich. excerpts by SHOSTAKOVICH, BEETHOVEN. 6. What is a Mode? excerpts by DEBUSSY, ALMER, SIBELIUS, BARRI/SLOAN, LISZT, RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, BRAHMS, PROKOFIEV, SIBELIUS, CHOPIN, MUSSORGSKY, BERRY/GREENWICH, DAVIES, LENNON/McCARTNEY, BERNSTEIN, BEETHOVEN. 7. A Toast to Vienna in 3/4 Time. excerpts by J. STRAUSS, MOZART, BEETHOVEN, MAHLER, R. STRAUSS W/Christa Ludwig, mezzo; Water Berry, bs-bar. 8. Quiz-Concert: How Musical Are You? excerpts by RIMSKY-KORSAKOV. 9. Berlioz Takes a Trip. excerpts by BERLIOZ. 10. Two Ballet Birds. excerpts by TCHAIKOVSKY, STRAVINSKY. 11. “Fidelio”: A Celebration of Life. excerpts from BEETHOVEN: Fidelio w/Anita Darian, sop; Forest Warren, ten; Howard Ross, bass; David Cumberland, bs-bar. 12. Unusual Instruments of the Present, Past & Future. excerpts by VILLA-LOBOS, DE LA TORRE, GABRIELI, BACH, LUENING/ USSACHEVSKY, BUCCI W/Vladimir Ussachevsky, tape recorder; Anita Darian, kazoo. 13. Overtures & Preludes. excerpts by ROSSINI, BEETHOVEN, DEBUSSY. 14. Aaron Copland Birthday Party. music by COPLAND w/William Warfield, bar; Aaron Copland, cond. 15. Young Performers No. 4. excerpts by MOZART, LISZT w/Joan Weiner, Claudia Hoca, Pamela Paul, André Watts, pno; Yuri Krasnopolsky, Serge Fournier, cond. 16. Young Performers No. 5. excerpts by HANDEL, RAVEL, RAN, BARTÓK, ROSSINI w/Heidi Lehwalder, harp; Weldon Berry, cl; Amos Eisenberg, fl; Shulamit Ran, pno; Steohen Kates, cel; Claudio Abbado, Pedro Calderóm, Zdenêk Kobler, cond. 17. Young Performers No. 6. excerpts by MOZART, MENDELSSOHN, RAVEL W/Patricia Micheaelian, pno; James Buswell, vln / New York Philharmonic Orch.; Leonard Bernstein, cond/narr / Unitel Edition 800408

Having already been issued previously on VHS tapes and later, by C Major, on DVDs, Unitel resumes its re-reissue of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts. AS in the case with Vol. 1, one can go in and select “Subtitles Off” before clicking on any of the programs on each DVD prior to playing it, but the DVD automatically selects English subtitles anyway, which means that after each show starts you have to go BACK into “Titles Menu” and click “Subtitles Off” a second time.

Perhaps because he felt that many of the same young people were coming to most of the concerts, plus the fact that they had gotten a bit older since he started in 1958, by 1964-66 Bernstein’s lecture-demonstrations began to delve into more technical lessons on sonata form, a study of intervals and modes. Sonata form is actually a pretty basic topic, and to a certain point so too are intervals, but the subject of modes has always seemed, even to me, a bit knotty. Yes, yes, I know that the three basic Greek modes used in Western classical music are the Dorian, the Phrygian, the Lydian and the Mixolydian, but to be honest the only one I have firmly in my own mind is the latter, a scale that starts on a G and only uses the white keys, which means that the 7th note of the scale is an F natural and not an F#. My ears can always tell when a mode is being used because there is bound to be an interval or two that doesn’t fit into the well-tempered scale, but by and large I really don’t care which it is. As the old swing-era song went, “’Tain’t whatcha do, it’s the way how’cha do it, that’s what gets results.” As long as the composer knows what he or she is doing and it works, I wouldn’t care if the scale or mode was a Mixodorian.

And, in his lecture on sonata form, Bernstein admits that you can’t hear sonata form “all at once” because music unravels in time and you can’t tell where a piece of music is going until it gets there. To be honest, I don’t know if modern-day pop music lovers could tell basic sonata form because it’s not used in most of their music nowadays. Bernstein uses the much more basic A-B-A form of pop music, which is just about all we get nowadays if we’re lucky, but of course real sonata form also uses a trio theme which follows the A-B-A sections. He then jumps from the Beatles’ And I Love Her to soprano Veronica Tyler (overripe vibrato and all) singing Micaela’s aria from Carmen, which uses A-B-A-C, and in a much more complex way than most pop songs. Fortunately, he explains it when she’s finished. Then he explains how all of this is expanded exponentially in a sonata and/or symphony. The problem is that he then jumps into music that breaks the very rules he has just taught and expects his young audience to pick that up as well. I’m sure some did (maybe one out of twenty) but many did not. As a young person myself (I was 13 years old when this program first aired), I found it fascinating but listened more intently to the music than to the technical explanation, and there I, and most listeners, have been ever since. I now know all the “rules” but realize that it’s the way the finished product moves and impacts one’s mind and emotions that really matters the most.

The programs devoted to a single composer, Sibelius and Shostakovich, are rather less technical, focusing on emotional or political messages in their music. Surprisingly, Bernstein gives a rather stirring and taut performance of the former’s Finlandia that I liked very much. Sergiu Luca played a very good performance of that composer’s Violin Concerto in the same concert. Ironically, Luca is best remembered today as an early-music pioneer, one of the proponents of the phony “straight toned” violin school. This program is truly more of a concert and less of a music lesson. For me, as a 14-year-old, the Violin Concerto was a bit too subtle for me to grasp—I had just recently been exposed to the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and preferred that piece in both form and melodic content—but at least we just got the music here without too much technical explanation. Although, as I say, a good performance, it does not hold a candle to the recordings by Guila Bustabo or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Musical Atoms: The Study of Intervals may have been one of his most influential lectures, since intervals are something that every music lover can hear and their spacing is even more important to the progress and impact of a piece than sonata form per se. It is by properly hearing intervals and following how a composer uses them that most impacts your emotional and intellectual appreciation of a piece, particularly since it can be applied to music of all schools and eras. Even Bernstein says it: “If you understand that one point, there’s nothing in music you can’t understand.” He then patiently explains how “inverting” an interval doesn’t mean playing it backwards, but spacing it out either up or down an octave to create an entirely different feeling—and of course the first movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is the perfect example of this. Yet although Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony makes an excellent example of the use of minor seconds, I felt that its growing complexity was beyond the grasp of many of the young listeners, so once again Bernstein took a good lesson plan and complicated it.

I had to laugh when, after playing part of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in a “bombastic” arrangement at the beginning of the next show (The Sound of an Orchestra), Bernstein told his audience that it was “the sound of an orchestra showing off.” Yeah, that’s the New York Phil for you: always showing off. I mean, just listen to the introduction of each show: “From Lincoln Center, home of the WORLD’S GREATEST MUSICAL EVENTS…” Says who? The script writer at CBS? “The award-winning show…” Yeah, ‘cause you gave yourselves those awards. The World hasn’t given you any awards or deemed your performances The World’s Greatest. But seriously, I did appreciate his explaining that Beethoven’s music called for a certain “roughness of sound: that was not appropriate for Brahms—a lesson that Toscanini and a few others understood but most German conductors (excepting Scherchen and Gielen) did not. He then makes an obvious but important difference between the dry-but-opaque sound of Debussy’s music and the dry-but-clear sound of Stravinsky. This was another of his more successful programs, showing how an orchestra can sound very different depending on the composer, era and style being presented.

The Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich opens with an excerpt from the slow movement from one of his masterpieces, the Seventh Symphony, but spends most of the show on his complete Ninth Symphony, one of his ugliest works. Yes, it was meant as a bit of an ironic joke because it was his Ninth Symphony and yet was rather short and ostensibly witty, but Shostakovich’s sense of humor was much more gauche than that of Prokofiev. I skipped most of this show because of my antipathy towards this symphony. The next program, beginning DVD 3, is the one on modes, which was the first program of the series broadcast in color. I voiced my concerns regarding this topic (for young people who are not necessarily music students) earlier, and although Bernstein starts off with a real masterpiece of modal music, Debussy’s Fêtes from the 3 Nocturnes, and a very fine performance of it to boot, I think it really left most of his audience more puzzled when it was finished than clued-in. He does, however, firmly impress the Dorian mode on them by illustrating that it simply uses all the white keys in an octave if you start at the piano on a D. He then ends the program with a repeat performance of Fêtes, this one even faster than the first—far faster than Toscanini ever performed it and, worse yet, very sloppy in note values. Just sayin’.

A Toast to Vienna in ¾ Time is pretty much just a concert showing different forms of triple meter, the highlight of which is a sequence of three songs from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn sung by Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, both overdoing their motions and facial expressions for the benefit of the young people in the audience. I was curious to see the Quiz-Concert if for no other reason than to hear what music Bernstein expected his young audience to know. I once owned a 1943 book of musical quizzes issued by RCA Victor which I failed miserably because many of the questions revolved around musical ephemera that most people today don’t even know, such as the song/aria “Brown October Ale” from Reginald de Koven’s Robin Hood. But Bernstein’s quiz revolved around what he called “musical sensitivity,” how one reacted to music. He jumps in with the finale of the Brahms First Symphony, but then wants his audience to guess the composer’s name, nationality, dates, style and form of the next piece, which turns out to be Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro overture. Many of the kids got those answers right, but a lot failed on the next set of questions because they were trick questions. But Bernstein kept everything light and good-natured, and in the next section he conducted the wrong meter, dynamics, etc. and asked the audience to tell him what was wrong. But even the “hard” part of the quiz was pretty easy for anyone who had come to most of these concerts and/or was taking lessons on an instrument: major or minor scales, crescendo, diminuendo, chords, arpeggios, octaves etc. So this was a musical quiz that wasn’t too challenging.

Well, of course one of my favorite programs was Berlioz Takes a Trip, describing the Symphonie Fantastique as “the first psychedelic symphony.” Of course, Berlioz was on opium and not acid when he conceived this symphony, but the analogy was a pretty good one (and besides, as much drugs as Lenny took, he could probably have made a scientific comparison between cocaine, LSD and opium). But he did do an excellent job of analyzing and explaining the symphony despite the fact that, compared to the Beatles or Vanilla Fudge, much of his audience probably found Berlioz’ “mad” themes quite normal and sedate. My favorite line came from his introduction to the last movement: “There’s a man who told it like it is. You take a trip, you end up screaming at your own funeral.” In Two Ballet Birds, Bernstein compares and contrasts Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with Stravinsky’s Firebird, or at least the suite from the latter. In a way this program, like so many others in this series, is a trip back to the days when music was meant to sound expressive and not like some soulless electronic instrument via “straight tone,” and although some of the music presented here certainly could use a more condensed orchestral texture—and surely less of Bernstein’s overwrought emotional interpretation—much of it is quite enjoyable. One interesting aspect of these lecture-concerts, for those readers who aren’t very familiar with Bernstein’s style or many of his recordings, is that the time constraints led him to give generally tauter, leaner, more structured performances than usual. Sometimes, as in the case of Debussy’s Fêtes, they are rushed a bit too much, but for the most part they are far superior to the general style he normally presented.

Bernstein’s presentation of Beethoven’s Fidelio presents four singers of whom I knew nothing: soprano Anita Darian, tenor Forest Warren, bass Howard Ross and bass-baritone David Cumberland. Darian was a singer and actress who spent most of her career at the New York City Opera, the “junior varsity” cousin of the Metropolitan. Two interesting footnotes to her career is that she sang wordless vocals with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra as well as the wordless high vocals on The Tokens’ hit recording of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Tenor Forest Warren just doesn’t exist online; when you Google his name, you pull up Leonard Warren, tenor Michael Forest and tenor saxist Warne Marsh. Howard Ross’ name pulls up a Social Justice Warrior who goes around the country telling people that they are showing “unconscious bias” even when they aren’t, just because he says so. Cumberland also sang at City Center Opera, where in one performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz he was knocked by the New York Times for his ineffectiveness. In this performance, Warren reveals a steady voice that is a bit tight and dry, with good phrasing and musicianship. But, boys and girls, what do all of these singers have in common? I’ll tell you. Not one of them wriggles around on the stage, waves their hands or arms in the air when they sing, and yet they actually interpret the text. Amazing! Yet of course it’s LENNY who does all the wiggling, jumping around and face-making. Not so amazing, just gauche. Both Darian and Ross sing well in the “dungeon scene” duet, with Darian acting quite well with her facial expressions as well. She’s much better than Inge Nielsen, the Leonore on the Naxos recording of Fidelio, but Ross is just OK—not bad but not great. Eventually we hear our Don Pizarro, Cumberland. He has the requisite black-sounding timbre for the role, and he acts very well with the text, but his voice lacked just that extra bit of power and emotional depth to make Pizarro truly scary. But the scene is saved by Darian, who was really excellent in this role, and at least the others give 100%. All in all, much more satisfying than I expected.

We’re back to black-and-white (and Carnegie Hall) for the next DVD, which features telecasts from 1960-61. The first of these, Unusual Instruments, ostensibly features Noah Greenberg, founder and director of the New York Pro Musica (according to the booklet), but he’s nowhere in sight, and the musicians who do play aren’t identified by name. The credits at the end of the show simply list them as “Musicians of the New York Pro Musica, Noah Greenberg, director,” from which Unitel extrapolated the idea that Noah himself was one of the performers. As for the Concerto for Tape Recorder & Orchestra by the duo of Leuning and Ussachevsky, it has form and shape but is essentially ugly, pointless music. Another example of a novel idea run into the ground, but nowadays—if the composers were British—they’d receive awards and be hailed as great geniuses. But this is nothing compared to the “remarkable” (so says Bernstein) Concerto for Kazoo and Orchestra by one Mark Bucci. And where is this masterpiece today? Why are no orchestra societies screaming for its revival? Well, largely because, kazoo or no kazoo, it’s essentially milquetoast lyrical music (GUCK music) that goes in one ear and out the other.

In Overtures and Preludes (1961), Bernstein hits the nail on the head when he says that such pieces are perfect for young people because they’re relatively short, rhythmic and tuneful. We do get Rossini’s Semiramide (an absolutely rousing performance) and Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 overtures, but I felt that Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was a bit too soft-grained and harmonically dense for his audience (I remember being terribly bored by Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel when in my sophomore year of high school), in addition to which Bernstein conducts it very slowly and full of goopy string portamento. One of the kids started clapping about 3/4 of the way through it, thinking it was over. Happily, he ends with his own Candide overture, which hits just the right tone. Aaron Copland’s Birthday Party, also from 1961, is a tribute to Lenny’s old buddy who, it seemed to me, was just a bit overhyped for his accomplishments in rewriting American folk music, though I did like some of his pieces—and here Bernstein does give us some unusual Copland, namely the earlier, more harmonically interesting excerpt from Statements and his jazz-influenced “Dance” from Music for the Theatre, though he then goes straight into the rewrites of folk music, ending with Copland himself conducting El Salón Mexico. The problem I have with Copland is not that he wasn’t a good composer, but once he latched onto recycling American folk and fiddle tunes and writing this wide-interval “Americana” stuff, he gave up on being a really great composer except for his opera The Tender Land. But he figured out which side of his bread was buttered, and who wouldn’t go for financial security and widespread popularity over being just another outstanding composer who can’t click with a large segment of the public? At least Bernstein gave his young audience some of the “thorny” Copland as well as the Americana stuff. Baritone William Warfield sang the folk songs with his powerful but uneven voice.

program for 1-15-1963

Program of the January 15, 1963 concert

The last DVD features Young Performers Nos. 4-6, dating from January and December 1963 and January 28, 1965. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 is divided between three of the pianists—Joan Weiner, Claudia Hoca and Pamela Paul—while three different conductors lead the New York Philharmonic behind them (Yuri Krasnapolsky, Zoltán Rozsnyai and Serge Fournier). I found one Joan Weiner who is a clinical psychiatrist and another who is a stand-up comic, but alas, this Joan Weiner seems to have vanished. Claudia Hoca, who went on to become a noted pianist with the Buffalo Philharmonic, had her career ended by a serious auto accident in 2013. Pamela Mia Paul seems to have had the best career, winning the Naumburg International Piano Competition, performed both classic repertoire and modern music (hooray!) with major orchestras throughout America and Europe, and currently holds a professorship at the University of North Texas College of Music. As for the conductors, Krasnopolsky went on to a solid career, currently leading the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra; Rozsnyai, who was no spring chicken at the time (he was a week shy of his 37th birthday), had studied with Bartók, Kodáky and Dohnányi and conducting with Janos Ferencsik, worked with second-tier American orchestras in the 1960s before building the Knoxville Symphony into a first-class orchestra in the 1980s; while Serge Fournier, who struck me as clearly the most assured and exciting of the three, was taken under Charles Munch’s wing at Boston when he was not yet thirty yet he, too, ended up as music director of such second-tier orchestras as the Toledo and Oak Ridge Symphonies. To my ears, Paul was clearly the best of the three pianists, sounding less mechanical than Weiner and fierier than both Weiner and Hoca. She also leaned over the piano keys when playing, with a fierce look of concentration on her face, which is how I played the piano (of course, not with her facility) when I was still physically able. The Liszt Concerto No. 1 is conducted by Bernstein and played by then-16-year-old André Watts, who I always liked to a point but normally found better in flashy pieces than music requiring more depth of feeling. He did, however, play with a much better legato and sense of musical structure than Lorin Hollander or, most of the time, Horowitz. His performance, outstanding for a teenager, is as mature as the best performances and recordings I heard of him later in life. Watching him play here (I never saw him in person), I was struck by his broad, powerful shoulders from which he generated so much of his keyboard energy, much like Arthur Rubinstein, who I did see in person.

Young Performers No. 5 features harpist Heidi Lehwalder (the last pupil of legendary harp teacher Carlos Salzedo, now an internationally recognized star) playing a movement from a Handel concerto. Lehwalder is then joined by clarinetist Weldon Berry (who seems to have disappeared) and flautist Amos Eisenberg (who played with the Israel Chamber Orchestra and taught Gyorgy Sándor Farkas) to play Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro conducted by the then-30-year-old Claudio Abbado. His performance here is typical of his work throughout his career: clean, unfussy, yet lacking character or real feeling. It’s an excellent “shell” of a performance without heart or soul. Young Lehwalder, at age 14, clearly had technique up the wazoo but was not yet the great interpreter she later became. The others play well but not exceptionally.

Shulamit Ran

Shulamit Ran in December 1963

Our next performer is composer-pianist Shulamit Ran, who indeed went on to an outstanding career, in her own Capriccio for Piano & Orchestra conducted by Pedro Calderón. It’s a wonderful work, atmospheric yet well-structured, typical of her output over the decades. Cellist Stephen Kates, who plays a transcribed version of Bartók’s violin Rhapsody No. 1, Part 2 under conductor Zdenêk Košler, had a great pedigree—he studied with Gregor Piatagorsky, Leonard Rose and Laszlo Varga—and later placed third in the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition and had a good solo career before dying of lymphoma at age 59. Kates also plays the solo cello part in the William Tell Overture, conducted by Bernstein, which closes the program.

The last show in this set, Young Performers No. 6, features pianist Patricia Michaelian, who has been a member of the piano faculty at the University of Washington since 1984 and has recorded Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Naxos, in the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. Both she and Bernstein are simply terrific. Although I sometimes tore my hair out over Bernstein’s interpretations of Romantic repertoire, I always found his Bach, Haydn and Mozart to be first-rate (not so, always his Handel), and he gives the music an excitement and impetus it rarely receives today. The second soloist is violinist James Buswell, who has had a fine international career, made many albums, and was nominated for a Grammy for his recording of the Barber Violin Concerto, playing the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Bernstein wrapped up the program with an analysis and performance of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite.

So there you have it. On balance, a set worth getting for your classical-curious relative or friend of almost any age. Not every piece in every concert will grab everyone the same, but it sure beats sitting through a pedantic “music appreciation course” anywhere else in the universe!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s