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Bernstein the Educator

Museums curate the past. They help us to shape and populate our impressions of history.

Orchestras do not curate the past. A typical symphonic program (alas) begins with the selection of a soloist. The resulting programs are eclectic: a potpourri.

During his historic music directorship of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein was the rare conductor for whom curating the past was an urgent priority. During his first season – 1957-58 – he undertook a survey of American music “from its earliest generations to the present.” The resulting programs, sans soloists, started with George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and Edward MacDowell.

Ever the educator, he turned all that into his second Young People’s Concert: “What Makes Music America?” (Feb. 1, 1958).  It’s an essential Bernstein document. You can revisit it on youtube here.

For the Brevard Music Festival’s Bernstein Centenary festival-within-a festival this summer, it was my pleasure to create a young people’s concert about Bernstein’s Feb. 1, 1958, young people’s concert. The musicians were gifted high school students (comprising one of four Brevard orchestras). The conductor and host (also gifted) was Kenneth Lam. I created the script. Peter Bogdanoff created a visual track. You can see and hear what it looked and sounded like here. To sample the gist of it, start at 20:31, where we ask what made Bernstein’s young people’s concerts utterly different from all those that had gone before (the Philharmonic had been doing them since 1924) and answer: “personal need.”

The music for our “Bernstein The Educator” concert derived from the works sampled by Bernstein on “What Makes Music American?” – pieces by Chadwick, George Gershwin, Roy Harris, and Aaron Copland. In Bernstein’s exegesis, they charted an evolutionary ladder from “kindergarten” to “college” and beyond. We added a fifth composer who Bernstein memorably championed – but who doesn’t fit the ladder: Charles Ives.

Hearing the finale of Ives’s Second Symphony (composed long before World War I) alongside An American in Paris, the finale to Harris’s Third, and “Night on the Prairie” from Copland’s Billy the Kid was a terrific experience. I am sure I am far from the only listener who found Ives fresher and more original than the Harris or the Copland. And yet in its day, Roy Harris’s Third  (premiered by Serge Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony in 1939 – a dozen years before Bernstein discovered the Ives Second) was widely considered the foremost contender for “Great American Symphony.”

As for An American in Paris – though Gershwin was once widely perceived as a gifted dilettante, this irresistible tone poem sounds to me exceptionally well put together. As in Rhapsody in Blue and the second movement of his Concerto in F, Gershwin reserves his Big Tune (the languorous song for solo trumpet) for late in the game. And how cunningly he uses it – varying its mood and velocity — to drive his piece to a climax. I would call Harris’s fugal finale clumsy by comparison.

My script ended:

“What are we to make of Bernstein’s ‘evolutionary ladder’ today – more than half a century later? This question is not so simple to answer. The main challenger to Bernstein’s 1958 narrative is Charles Edward Ives, born in Connecticut in 1874. Many would today call Ives the greatest American symphonist. And yet – and this is a problem — Ives’s symphonies did not become well known until long after he composed them.

“Ironically, Charles Ives’s most important advocate among conductors was . . . Leonard Bernstein, who in 1951 introduced the world to a Great American Symphony: Ives’s Symphony No. 2, completed in . . . 1909. Packed with fiddle tunes and hymns, Stephen Foster songs and Civil War marches, Ives’s symphony is a grand American tapestry containing not a single original melody. It’s an act of visionary genius that Serge Koussevitzky didn’t know existed during those interwar decades when he predicted ‘the next Beethoven’ would show up in Colorado.

“Like Koussevitzky, Copland, and countless others, Leonard Bernstein believed that the 1920s and thirties constituted a new dawn for American music – a brave New World without real ancestors. This conviction, and the narrative behind it, was a catalyst. Never mind whether Chadwick was actually a ‘kindergarten’ composer. Never mind that Ives came first. The storied new beginning was energizing, invigorating. It empowered Bernstein to compose, to advocate – and to educate a new generation of American concertgoers.

“But what happens next? We still mainly hear European works in American concert halls. Audiences are aging and dwindling. And when in 1992 Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts were offered to American public television, nothing happened. There was far stronger interest in revisiting these historic shows in Germany and Japan.

“This is a cultural challenge that must matter to all of us. It requires the kind of creative response to a pressing need that once impelled Leonard Bernstein to re-invent the New York Philharmonic.”

I was invited to spend five days with Brevard’s young musicians exploring these questions. Ten of them took part in a vigorous post-concert discussion lasting the better part of an hour. I felt we had managed to concoct a learning exercise worthy of Leonard Bernstein’s high example.

Next summer Brevard will present a Copland festival. I’m working with Jason Posnock, Brevard’s far-sighted artistic administrator, to implement another such young people’s concert — in which the musicians themselves will serve as hosts and commentators. Stay tuned.


  1. Richard Garmise says

    Very nice article. I happen to think it was as educator that Bernstein did best. I think he had a certain glibness both as a conductor and a composer – other than the early theatre music , I don’t think anything much holds up, and his “interpretations” to me are at best visceral and bathetic In many respects, in my own view, he was more of a cultural phenomenon, a media creature, who came at the right time in the right place – an assimilated, Ivy League Jew who could make American Jews – in what was then the largest Jewish city in the world, just after the horrors of the War, feel both proud and able to “fit in”. His analogue, in my mind, is Bess Myerson – “Bess shelanu “. He was more Jewish than Elizabeth Warren is Native American, but carried none of the “baggage “ that made these same assimilated Jews feel self-conscious or the objects of hatred. He was he ideal conductor for Vienna for this reason as well ( as opposed to Maazel, the object of direct anti-Semitism decades later). He was undeniably talented, but very little in his performances seems to me much more than sensation-seeking and orchestral coordination is often poor even on recording – listen closely to the Mendelssohn Scotch Symphony as one example. He had indeed a much greater natural feeling for tonal American music and there he was truly a champion. But it was as an educator that he was in my view supreme and the Young Peoples’ Concerts are more than enough for a lifetime

  2. Robert Berger says

    Orchestras are not museums and it is unfair to judge them by what museums do . Eclectic programming is not a bad thing . The function of orchestras is to play the widest possible variety of music – new works, old ones, familiar ones, unfamiliar ones . This is exactly what they offer to the public .
    Thematic programming can be interesting , but it is not necessary for orchestras to be relevant and a part of the intellectual life of a city . You might compare a program to a formal dinner ; each course is a different kind of food
    As music director of the New York Philharmonic , Leonard Bernstein gave audiences a judicious mix of new works, old ones, familiar and unfamiliar ones .

  3. The Young Peoples’ Concerts for the times were very good indeed and he was talented to a limited degree.
    The problem was that to put it politely he had a “middle class ” mind which prohibited him from getting
    below the surface no matter how great his ambition .He knew how a work should “go”but couldn’t get there.
    His calling was himself and if music served him in the calling then well and good.

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